An internal Justice Department posting seeking lawyers for “investigations and possible litigation" relating to university affirmative action policies was a call for volunteers to work on a single complaint filed by Asian-American groups accusing Harvard University of racial bias in admissions, not a sweeping policy change, a department spokeswoman said Wednesday.
The internal document, described in a New York Times report on Tuesday evening, set off a torrent of speculation — and concern from many civil rights and higher education groups — that the Trump administration was preparing to sue universities over their affirmative action policies.
“The posting sought volunteers to investigate one administrative complaint filed by a coalition of 64 Asian-American associations in May 2015 that the prior Administration left unresolved,” Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said in a statement. “The complaint alleges racial discrimination against Asian Americans in a university’s admissions policy and practices.”
Those groups, led by the Asian-American Coalition for Education, filed complaints with both the Education and Justice departments alleging that Harvard discriminated against Asian-American applicants based on their race. The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights dismissed the complaint in July 2015, citing an ongoing lawsuit against the university over similar issues. But the complaint remains pending with the Civil Rights Division at DOJ.
“This Department of Justice has not received or issued any directive, memorandum, initiative, or policy related to university admissions in general,” Flores said in the statement. “The Department of Justice is committed to protecting all Americans from all forms of illegal race-based discrimination.”
It’s unusual for the department to confirm an ongoing investigation, but it appears to be responding to the fallout from the New York Times story, which said that the Trump administration was preparing to target universities with affirmative action policies that discriminate against white applicants.
The group that filed the complaint against Harvard has since filed similar complaints alleging illegal discrimination against Asian-American applicants at Yale University, Brown University and Dartmouth College. Separately, another group, Students for Fair Admissions Inc., has filed lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that make similar claims of bias against Asian-American applicants.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders rebutted the Times story on Wednesday, saying it was “based entirely on uncorroborated inferences from a leaked internal personnel posting in violation of Department of Justice policy.”
“While the White House does not confirm or deny the existence of potential investigations, the Department of Justice will always review credible allegation of discrimination on the basis of any race,” Sanders said.
Congressional Democrats, higher education organizations and civil rights groups all expressed concern on Wednesday about the prospect that the Justice Department would be taking a new, more aggressive posture against affirmative action policies under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The Supreme Court ruled last year in a 4-3 decision that the University of Texas’ program admitting some students based on consideration of their race was constitutional.