Hot on the heels of three similar lawsuits, the Department of Justice announced on Oct. 8 a lawsuit against Yale University, alleging illegal discrimination on the grounds of race and national origin during the admissions process. The DOJ found the university in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin.
Following a multiyear investigation, the DOJ claimed that Asian-American and white applicants at Yale “have only one-eighth to one-fourth of the likelihood of admission as African-American applicants with comparable academic credentials.” The DOJ pointed in part to data from Yale’s 2017 and 2018 admissions cycles, where the admission rate by race and ethnic group was compared to a score-based academic index, showing an increased likelihood for Black and Hispanic applicants to be admitted.
The DOJ’s statement said that “although the Supreme Court has held that colleges receiving federal funds may consider applicants' race in certain limited circumstances as one of a number of factors, the Department of Justice found Yale’s use of race is anything but limited. Yale uses race at multiple steps of its admissions process resulting in a multiplied effect of race on an applicant’s likelihood of admission. And Yale racially balances its classes.”
That same day, Yale President Peter Salovey wrote in a statement that Yale has been providing the DOJ with information showing that they are using “inaccurate statistics.” Salovey refuted claims of racial discrimination and balancing and said that the university plans to continue with their race-conscious, holistic approach to admissions.
“I want to be clear: Yale does not discriminate against applicants of any race or ethnicity,” Salovey said. “Our admissions practices are completely fair and lawful. Yale’s admissions policies will not change as a result of the filing of this baseless lawsuit. We look forward to defending these policies in court.”
Even though the DOJ is fighting Supreme Court precedent, as well as lower court rulings in favor of Harvard and UT Austin’s affirmative action policies, David Hinojosa, director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, said these filings, even if unsuccessful, can have the impact of quieting universities who are advocating for racial equity.
“You want these universities to be making these bold statements, especially in this era, and for them to try and silence the universities or interfere with the university’s own efforts of reckoning with their terrible past by threatening litigation and investigations, you’re going to have yet another chilling effect. That’s exactly what the administration is about,” Hinojosa said.
In the 2003 Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger, the court upheld affirmative action and ruled that race can be used in college admissions as one factor to encourage diversity. In Gratz v. Bollinger, a twin case that the court heard and ruled on simultaneously, the Court went on to state universities' usage of a race-based point system to mechanically engineer diversity was unconstitutional. An earlier Supreme Court case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, marked racial quotas as unconstitutional.
The DOJ contends in their complaint that Yale could achieve diversity instead by emphasizing socio-economic status, applicant location and personal challenges accessing education and eliminating favoritism towards legacies and donors. However, Supreme Court precedent has allowed race-conscious admissions to encourage diversity, and in California, where affirmative action was blocked for public universities, the state saw a downslide in diversity. University of California Board Chairman John A. Pérez said that a “colorblind” model dismisses racism that still exists in college admissions.
Victor Jandres Rivera, CC ’24, identifies as a first-generation low-income person of color. He said it is disheartening to keep seeing suits filed against these institutions for using affirmative action.
“It already feels like you can be an outsider when you’re in a community of such prestige, and that’s so full of so many affluent people and higher powered individuals,” Jandres Rivera said. “When you’re coming from that socially disadvantaged space, it can start feeling even worse when people start to question your existence on campus.”
Hinojosa notes how he was struck by the lack of evidence to back up the complaint. He said that based on the DOJ’s released findings, the lawsuit likely will not pass a motion to dismiss.
“Either someone didn’t do their homework, or someone didn’t have any homework to do, because there wasn’t anything there,” Hinojosa said. “Typically when these cases are filed, because these are serious charges, you would expect there to be lots of facts detailing about how Yale has allegedly violated the rights of white students and some Asian-American students.”
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. released a statement arguing that attempts to overturn affirmative action are divisive and seek to further marginalize students of color.
“This lawsuit is another effort by the Trump Administration to quash important efforts to expand educational opportunities to all qualified students. Instead of using federal resources to advance racial equity in our educational systems amid persistent and longstanding discrimination against students of color, the DOJ is challenging the legality of race-conscious admissions in opposition to 42 years of Supreme Court precedent,” LDF Assistant Counsel Monique Lin-Luse said.
In the United States v. Yale University complaint, the DOJ excludes “racially-favored” Asian applicants who, among other subgroups, identify as Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian, or Vietnamese.
Hinojosa said this racial division within the lawsuit is unprecedented and marks a critical difference with the Yale lawsuit. He sees this practice as in-line with the Trump administration’s narrative of using the law to disadvantage people of color and benefit white people. He pointed most recently to the Trump administration’s decision to block forms of diversity and inclusivity training. He said the DOJ’s complaint could pave the way for colorblind admissions.
“This is just another way of trying to protect white male applicants and create a systemic path to higher ed at elite institutions,” Hinojosa said.
According to law professor Melvin Urofsky via the New Yorker, there has been a negligible effect on white men as a result of affirmative action. In fact, Urofsky states that “the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women.”
Three ongoing affirmative action lawsuits against Harvard University, University of Texas at Austin, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were filed by the nonprofit group Students for Fair Admissions. Lower courts ruled in favor of Harvard and UT Austin, but both decisions have been appealed. With the exception of UT, the plaintiffs who have argued that their rejection was an instance of racial discrimination have not revealed their identity for fear of retaliation.
Rivera, also a QuestBridge Scholar, said that, an ideal college experience is one filled with diverse experiences, and that affirmative action and holistic admissions—a system Columbia also utilizes—helps foster such experiences. The organization QuestBridge “connects the nation’s most exceptional, low-income youth with leading colleges and opportunities.”
“Taking the holistic factor out of it just means you’re getting a monolithic community that’s just being made up of people from the same or similar backgrounds,” Rivera said. “Then all of a sudden you’re taking away a lot of experiences that college should be.”
Rivera added he believes people’s misconceptions about affirmative action and holistic admissions lead them to think that Black and Latinx students are taking spots away from white or Asian applicants.
“In reality, the basis for doing it is to make sure that we’re creating a class where we can have individuals from different mindsets and communities and backgrounds because we all contribute to a greater network,” Rivera said. “That makes it Columbia; that makes it a much better experience for everyone.”