Justice Department opens Harvard admissions probe, threatens to sue for documents

Frederick Owens
November 22, 2017

However, the issue of affirmative action on college campuses has been a longstanding debate in courts across the US for decades. As for now, Harvard officials claim that the release of admissions information will interfere with the privacy rights of students.

Earlier correspondence from Harvard's lawyer to the Justice Department obtained by NPR suggests the university's skepticism about the probe.

Past year the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action in college admissions decisions, saying that race can be one factor in order to promote diversity on campus.

The dispute centers on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bars racial discrimination by organizations that receive federal grants - like Harvard - and the culture-war fight over whether efforts to ensure diversity by giving an edge to members of generally disadvantaged groups, like black and Latino students, amount to discrimination against white or Asian students with otherwise comparable or higher qualifications.

In a letter sent Friday, Matthew Donnelly of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said Waxman had erroneously challenged the agency's right to investigate Harvard under Title VI and had proposed a plan to give restricted access to limited documents.

"As we have repeatedly made clear to the Department of Justice, the university will certainly comply with its obligations under Title VI", Harvard spokeswoman Anna Cowenhoven said in a statement on Tuesday.

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The Justice Department is seeking "broad-ranging access to documents regarding Harvard's admissions policy and practices".

A pending lawsuit brought by an advocacy group, Students for Fair Admissions, asked a federal judge to prohibit the use of race in future undergraduate admissions decisions by Harvard, claiming the school violates federal civil-rights law and intentionally discriminates against Asian-American students.

" 'It seems entirely consistent with President Trump's campaign rhetoric, ' says Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a constitutional law professor at Harvard". The school also said just over half of the freshmen admitted in 2017 were women, more than one-in-five were Asian and nearly 15 percent listed as African-American. "This investigation is a welcome development".

"Harvard's Asian quotas, and the overall racial balancing that follows, have been ignored by our federal agencies for too long", Blum said in a statement.

Waxman stated in a November 7 letter that Harvard was willing to provide the Justice Department with documents produced for the federal court case, "with redactions for relevance, privacy, and privilege/work product protection".

The US Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that affirmative action can continue to be used by public universities when considering minority students.

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