US drops lawsuit accusing Yale of discrimination against Asian and white applicants

Jacob Fromer
·5-min read

The US Justice Department dismissed on Wednesday its own lawsuit against Yale University for allegedly discriminating against Asian and white applicants in its undergraduate admissions process.

In a new filing to the federal district court of Connecticut, the Justice Department’s lawyers said they were issuing a “voluntary dismissal” of the case – the latest move by the Joe Biden administration to overturn contentious Trump-era positions, including this one opposing colleges’ consideration of race when they admit students.

The lawsuit against Yale had been filed in October by Trump’s team after the Justice Department accused the school of imposing “undue and unlawful penalties” on its white and Asian applicants.

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A Trump-era Justice Department investigation had found that Asian-American and white applicants to Yale have a smaller “likelihood of admission as African American applicants with comparable academic credentials”.

The lawsuit against Yale had been filed in October by Trump’s team after the Justice Department accused the school of imposing “undue and unlawful penalties”. Photo: AP
The lawsuit against Yale had been filed in October by Trump’s team after the Justice Department accused the school of imposing “undue and unlawful penalties”. Photo: AP

Trump’s team had vigorously opposed affirmative action admissions policies, which are meant to correct for years of discrimination against ethnic minority groups by many elite US universities.

In a letter sent on Wednesday to Yale’s defence counsel, a senior Justice Department official said the decision was made “in light of all available facts, circumstances, and legal developments”.

Those developments included a separate anti-affirmative action lawsuit against Harvard University that was rejected in November by a federal appeal court, wrote Gregory Friel, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil rights division, according to a letter seen by the Post.

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In that lawsuit, a group called Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), led by the conservative political activist Edward Blum, had accused Harvard of using admissions policies that benefit African-American and Hispanic applicants but discriminate against Asian-Americans.

“The issue before us is whether Harvard’s limited use of race in its admissions process in order to achieve diversity in the period in question is consistent with the requirements of Supreme Court precedent. There was no error,” the US Court of Appeals in Boston said in its ruling, which affirmed an earlier loss in court by the SFFA.

If the case is appealed again, it remains unclear if the US Supreme Court would agree to review it.

Karen Peart, director of university media relations at Yale, said on Wednesday that the school is “gratified” that the Justice Department had dropped the lawsuit.

“We are also pleased that the Justice Department has withdrawn its notice of violation of Title VI and its notice of noncompliance,” she said in a statement. “The Justice Department’s decision in August 2020 to issue the notice of violation unexpectedly and precipitously cut off an exchange of information that Yale looks forward to resuming.”

A general view of Harvard University campus is seen on April 22, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo: Getty Images via TNS
A general view of Harvard University campus is seen on April 22, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo: Getty Images via TNS

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits colleges and universities that receive federal funding from discriminating against people on the basis of race, colour or national origin.

The Justice Department said in its letter that it would continue to review the potential issue of discrimination at Yale “through its administrative process as part of its ongoing Title VI investigation”.

The issue of affirmative action remains a source of contentious debate in US politics, including within the Asian-American community itself, experts said.

“There isn’t a single Asian-American perspective. You see variations with a family, between parents and children, on issues of race in particular,” said Frank Wu, president of Queens College.

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“Asian-Americans range from those very progressive and strongly supportive of diversity to those who are quite conservative and opposed to social engineering,” he said.

An AAPI Data voter survey published in September found that 70 per cent of Asian Americans support affirmative action.

The lowest levels of support for the policy among the various Asian-American groups surveyed was from the Chinese-American community, which still had 56 per cent support, according to the survey.

Critics of the Trump administration’s moves say the Asian-American community was being used by opponents of affirmative action as a sort of wedge to undermine the policy for all minorities in the US.

“This case was not about ending racial discrimination at Yale,” said Janelle Wong, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, and an author of the survey.

“It was about the Trump administration ending holistic admissions and affirmative action by alleging, without even having all of the evidence that they themselves requested, that Yale discriminates against Asian-Americans,” she said.

John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a civil rights non-profit organisation, added that Asian-Americans were “being used to divide communities of colour”.

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“The Justice Department’s decision today affirmed that this lawsuit was clearly about playing politics for the purpose of dismantling affirmative action,” he said.

The Biden administration’s move on Wednesday, added Margaret Chin, a professor of sociology at Hunter College, was an “affirmation” that the policy should not be abandoned.

Diversity “benefits everyone,” she said.

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