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August 02, 2017

Reaction to a report that the Trump administration plans to pursue complaints that college admissions discriminate against whites ranges from shock to delight.

The Justice Department could file lawsuits to challenge affirmative action policies in wide use at selective schools.

“I was shocked and I had thought after the last couple of weeks it would be pretty hard [for the Trump administration] to shock me,” said Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University.

Wesleyan, a private school in Middletown, Connecticut, considers race when making admission decisions.

“We factor in a lot of things as part of a holistic approach,” Roth said in an interview Wednesday. “This seems to me a cynical attempt to play to the base of people who feel threatened by greater equality for people of color.”

Roth is urging other colleges to speak out now before any policy shift gets implemented.

In a statement, Harvard says it remains committed to enrolling diverse class of students as allowed by law.

Last June, the Supreme Court backed affirmative action, deciding that the University of Texas-Austin can consider race as one factor in college admissions. The court voted 4-to-3 in UT’s favor, with Justice Elena Kagan recusing herself.

But an internal posting at the Justice Department appears to signal a shift in the priorities of the Civil Rights division away from discrimination against minorities. The administration is exploring legal action against race-based college admissions policies that many conservatives say discriminate against white applicants. The posting was first reported in The New York Times.

“It seems entirely consistent with President Trump’s campaign rhetoric,” says Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a constitutional law professor at Harvard. Brown-Nagin points out that the Trump administration’s decision to target affirmative action policies comes as racial tensions are rising on some campuses.

PRI's The Takeaway: Brown-Nagin discusses the legal and political aspects of the administration's focus on affirmative action

“On the one hand, you have racial minorities, immigrants, who are concerned about certain dynamics on campus,” she said. “On the other hand, you have conservatives who feel like their voices are being shut down in debates over things like affirmative action, immigration, and sexual assault.”

Brown-Nagin predicts that the Justice Department’s move may not go far because the Supreme Court has already upheld affirmative action in admissions.

Opponents of the practice, though, hope it will resurrect discrimination complaints against Harvard and other Ivy League schools.

“I personally feel a wave of fresh of air,” said Swan Lee of Brookline.

Two years ago, Lee helped organize a coalition of more than 60 organizations that accused Harvard of holding Asian-American applicants to higher standards than other racial groups. The coalition asked the federal government to investigate.

“The America that is now is very different from the America that was half a century ago,” Lee said. “So should we still feel very attached to the race-based system, or should we change to something else?”

Last year, the Obama administration’s Education Department dismissed the coalition's complaint against Harvard. But another complaint was filed in 2016 by more than 130 Asian-American groups. 

Under the Trump administration, there is still no word whether the Education Department will be involved with the Justice Department's plans to investigate whether university admissions policies discriminate against students based on race.

On Wednesday afternoon, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department said a job posting within the Civil Rights Division was related to the complaint filed by the coalition of Asian-American organizations and there is no broad plan to investigate affirmative action.

American Council on Education Vice President and General Counsel Peter McDonough says he has seen no information about a new Justice Department initiative concerning race-conscious college admissions, and notes that last year’s Supreme Court decision remains “the latest and most applicable articulation of the relevant law in this area.”

“I am confident that colleges and universities that pursue race-conscious admissions have reviewed their policies to make sure they comply with the Supreme Court's framework,” McDonough said.

Earlier: Is Harvard Showing Bias Against Asian-Americans? 

higher education, increasing access and success, affirmative action, Harvard

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