Justice Department drops lawsuit accusing Yale University of discriminating against Asian and White applicants

Students walk on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has dropped a lawsuit that accused Yale University of discriminating against Asian and White applicants, but the agency said it will continue to investigate the school’s admissions practices.

The decision to dismiss the lawsuit, announced Wednesday in a court filing, is a reversal from the stance Justice took under the Trump administration, which repeatedly challenged the issue of race in admissions.

“The department has dismissed its lawsuit in light of all available facts, circumstances, and legal developments,” including a November court ruling that rejected a similar challenge to Harvard University’s admissions practices, a Justice Department representative said.

The lawsuit filed against Yale in October accused the Ivy League school of favoring certain applicants – including Black, Hispanic and some Southeast Asian students – based on their race rather than using other means to achieve a diverse student body. In doing so, the university was making it harder for White and some Asian applicants to get into the school, the lawsuit claimed.

Yale President Peter Salovey denied the allegations at the time and told the campus its admissions practices were “fair and lawful.” On Wednesday, a campus spokeswoman said the school is “gratified” by the decision to drop the suit.

A Justice Department representative said the agency’s underlying investigation to ensure Yale’s compliance with federal civil rights law – launched in 2018 after Asian American groups complained about the university’s admissions – is ongoing.

“Yale welcomes the chance to share information with the department, confident that our admissions process complies fully with decades of Supreme Court decisions,” Salovey said Wednesday in a message to the campus.

It is common for universities to consider race as a factor in admissions, particularly for the benefit of groups that have faced discrimination in the past. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the use of race-conscious admissions – within limits.

But the practice, designed in part to help campuses become more diverse, was scrutinized by the Trump administration. The Justice Department launched an investigation into Yale’s admissions practices in 2018 and in August declared that the school had been giving too much weight to race, a violation of federal civil rights law.

“There is no such thing as a nice form of race discrimination,” Eric Dreiband, then the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said after the department finished its investigation.

The Trump-era Justice Department also filed briefs in support of a group of students and parents that accused Harvard of discriminating against Asian American applicants. A federal judge ruled against the plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions, in 2019.

After the group appealed, a federal judge in November upheld the original ruling. It was a victory for the university and supporters of affirmative action policies.

Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, now says he will file a lawsuit challenging Yale’s admissions policy.

Robert Rock, an attorney and partner at Tully Rinckey in Albany, N.Y., said the decision to drop the Yale suit makes clear the priorities of President Biden and his Justice Department.

“You have one administration that is going to be more protective and more of a promoter of diversity than the prior,” Rock said. “I don’t think the Trump administration actually shared those views.”

Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, said he supports the department’s reversal. The national group represents college presidents.

“We applaud the Department of Justice for dropping this unwarranted and politically motivated lawsuit,” Mitchell said in a statement. “We are optimistic that this sends a strong signal that the Department of Justice will continue to recognize the importance of allowing higher education institutions to follow the law of the land and consider race as one factor in a holistic admissions review.”

Supporters of such race-conscious admissions say the policy helps to close racial equity gaps and ensure that qualified Black, Hispanic and other students of color are considered.

But the legal aspects of such practices have been debated for decades.

“It is a factor to consider,” Rock said about race in admissions. “But it cannot be the determinant factor.”

Many college campuses, including the country’s most selective schools, continue to struggle with recruiting, admitting and retaining students of color. Federal data show that most undergraduate students enrolled at Yale are White or Asian, representing 40 percent and 20 percent of the population, respectively.

Fourteen percent of undergrads identify as Hispanic or Latino, 8 percent are Black and 10 percent come from other countries.

Salovey said the school will continue to rely on an admissions process that examines “the whole applicant: where applicants come from, what they have accomplished, and what they hope to achieve at Yale and after graduation,” he said in a statement.

“As I think of our students, each of whom had a unique journey to Yale, it is clear to me that they are a diverse group of talented individuals who have so much to contribute to our university, to our country, and to the world,” Salovey said. “Their stories – and their hopes and dreams – underscore the importance of our unwavering commitment to maintaining an academic environment built on a wide range of strengths and backgrounds.”

 

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