Kai Nip

The United States Department of Justice on Thursday accused the University of illegally discriminating against Asian American and white undergraduate applicants — an allegation Yale has strongly denied and some have interpreted to be driven by the president’s political interests.

The department’s findings come after a two-year investigation in response to a 2016 complaint against the University from the Asian American Coalition for Education and 132 other organizations. Its statement asserts that Yale’s admissions process violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Title VI prohibits programs and activities that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin.

“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,” the DOJ statement read. “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.”

According to the statement, the DOJ is demanding that Yale agree not to consider race or national origin in the 2020-21 admissions cycle, and that in order to consider those factors in future cycles, it must submit a “narrowly tailored” proposal that includes a date for the “end of race discrimination.”

The University has vehemently denied the allegations. In a press release sent to the News, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan called the DOJ’s findings “meritless and hasty” and said that Yale will not change its admissions practices.

According to the press release, Yale has complied fully with the DOJ’s investigation, and “had the Department fully received and fairly weighed this information, it would have concluded that Yale’s practices absolutely comply with decades of Supreme Court precedent.”

University President Peter Salovey echoed Quinlan in a community-wide email, reaffirming that the College has no plans to adapt their policies in accordance with the DOJ’s demands because the department is “seeking to impose a standard that is inconsistent with existing law.”

“We will continue to look at the whole person when selecting whom to admit among the many thousands of highly qualified applicants,” Salovey wrote, “… [we] will continue to create a student body that is rich in a diverse range of ideas, expertise and experiences.”

The Yale admissions office reported that within the class of 2023, 49.3 percent of matriculants identified as white, while 25.9 percent identified as Asian American.

The DOJ’s letter lacks legal grounding to force Yale into compliance, according to Cara McClellan, who is the assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. McClellan told the News that while the department can threaten the University with litigation if it does not modify its policies, its case would lack judicial precedent.

In the past 20 years, she said, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of affirmative action four times, allowing institutions to narrowly consider race as part of a holistic admissions process. McClellan said she viewed the letter as part of “a larger effort to dismantle affirmative action and to take opportunities away from hard-working Black and Latinx students.”

“At this point, we have very little faith that [the Trump] administration cares about racial justice as opposed to the dismantling of policies that are designed to ensure equity,” McClellan said.

Michael Williams, who sits on the board of the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, echoed McClellan’s sentiments, saying that he believes that should Yale’s case reach court — as it did in the case of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard — the court would “uphold the legitimacy and legality of the holistic admissions process.”

Given this precedent, some believe the Department of Justice’s ruling was politically motivated. Robert Schaeffer, the director of FairTest — an education organization dedicated to addressing fairness in student test taking — said that the decision was “a last-ditch shot, perhaps from the Trump administration, to keep their image of a white America in place.” 

Schaeffer said the letter is part of a political agenda to appeal to Trump’s voters, particularly in the wake of former Vice President Joe Biden’s decision to choose Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. — the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants — as his running mate.

Some groups reacted positively to Thursday’s letter. Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, said in a statement to the News that he “applauded” the Department of Justice for “suspending racial preferences at Yale.”

“Our nation’s civil rights laws and Constitution must be interpreted to forbid the use of race and ethnicity in college admissions,” Blum said. “In our multi-racial and multi-ethnic nation, the admissions’ bar cannot be raised for some races and ethnicities, and lowered for others.”

The AACE — which filed a brief in support of SFFA in the Harvard case — told the News that it also commends the DOJ for the letter. According to court filings, AACE represents about 260 businesses and educational and cultural groups.

Wenyuan Wu, the director of administration for the AACE, said that the organization wants to send a message to the American public that the principles of merit and equality are “both fundamental spirits of our nation and should not be sacrificed or replaced.”

In its brief against Harvard, AACE alleged that the school discriminated against Asian American applications “in order to maintain unlawful quotas.” A federal judge in Massachusetts rejected those claims in October 2019, ruling that Harvard’s admissions process met constitutional standards for consideration of race.

Katherine Fang ’17 LAW ’22 told the News that she believes the DOJ letter “[misidentified] the salient issues” driving educational inequity: elitism and lack of accessibility in higher education. Fang wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post in 2018 in support of affirmative action.

“I find it curious that anti-affirmative action activists often have little to say about a far more objectionable practice in my opinion: that of legacy admissions,” Fang said. “… [the] Department of Justice under this administration continues to intentionally misread the Fourteenth Amendment and Supreme Court precedent while pretending to uphold the very tenets of equal opportunity it is in reality expending enormous energy dismantling.”

The original 2016 complaint that launched the DOJ investigation also levelled allegations against Brown University and Dartmouth College, claiming that the universities deliberately cap the number of Asian American students admitted every year. The DOJ declined to pursue investigations into Dartmouth and Brown, citing a lack of evidence.

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, decided in 1978, was the first Supreme Court case to uphold affirmative action.

Olivia Tucker | olivia.tucker@yale.edu

Kelly Wei | kelly.wei@yale.edu

Correction, Aug. 13: This article has been updated with the correct spelling of McClellan’s last name in all instances.

Olivia Tucker covered student policy & affairs as a beat reporter in 2021-22. She previously served as an associate editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine and covered gender equity and diversity. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a senior in Davenport College majoring in English.