WASHINGTON — Lawmakers and activists were quick to condemn reports that the Department of Justice was prepared to shift resources to investigate university and college affirmative action policies to determine if they discriminate against white prospective students.
The New York Times obtained an internal document that showed the civil rights division was seeking attorneys for a new program for “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.”
At the daily press briefing on Wednesday, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the Times report was based “entirely on uncorroborated inferences,” and that they would not comment on potential investigations. “The Department of Justice will always review credible allegations of discrimination on the basis of any race.”
The report has particular resonance in entertainment, where there has been pressure on studios and networks to diversify the ranks of workers on and off camera.
Representatives at film and arts schools have so far been reluctant to comment on the story, but one administrator said that the Times report was puzzling in light of the fact that their problem was not enough diversity among student populations. “The problem is we are not diverse enough,” the administrator said.
Janet Napolitano, the president of the University of California, said that the UC system has been increasing its outreach to Latino and African American students, but it is still bound by California’s Proposition 209, which prohibits consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions. “It would be tragic, to say the least, if these efforts somehow ran afoul of this reported misguided Justice Department initiative,” she said.
It is also an issue for private universities that receive federal funds.
Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program, said that the “idea that the Justice Department would sue colleges over their inclusive policies is an affront to fairness and sends a dangerous signal that it will no longer work to protect the most vulnerable.”
“The Supreme Court has made it clear that it is constitutional to appropriately consider race as one of many factors in college admissions,” he added. “We will be monitoring closely.”
“Instead of standing up for himself to a president who called him ‘very weak’ and ‘beleaguered,’ Attorney General Sessions has chosen to pick on minority students who are in pursuit of a college education, opportunity and The American Dream,” he said. “In doing so, he’s appealing to the lowest common denominator in our country, people who wrongly believe that minority students who benefit from efforts to promote diversity and equality are ignorant, undeserving, and unqualified.”
The Supreme Court, in its 2016 decision in Fisher v. University of Texas, upheld an affirmative action program at the University of Texas, signaling that colleges and universities could continue to consider race as one of the factors in trying to diversify their student population.
Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the head of the Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama, said that such a program would show that Session is “now actively seeking to challenge efforts that colleges and universities have undertaken to expand educational opportunity is an affront to our values as a country and the very mission of the Civil Rights Division.”
Roger Clegg, the CEO of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative group devoted to issues of race and ethnicity, praised the news of the DOJ program. He argued that the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision made a “narrow” exception for using race in admission practices.
“Unfortunately, the evidence is that many schools use racial preferences sloppily and don’t follow the constraints the Court has set out,” Clegg said in a statement. “By using race and ethnicity rather than actual social and economic disadvantage, racial preferences harm many low-income Asians as well as whites.”