Harvard DOJ

The Justice Department is actively investigating Harvard University’s affirmative action policies. Civil rights organizations claim that the university discriminates against Asian American applicants by imposing higher criteria for admission. (Getty Images)

A coalition of 64 civil rights organizations, which filed a lawsuit against Harvard University in 2015 claiming that its affirmative action policies discriminated against Asian Americans, heralded the news that the Justice Department is actively probing the renowned college’s admissions criteria.

Several news media reported Nov. 21 that the Justice Department believes Harvard is using race as a factor in its admissions policies, which makes the university “out of compliance” with federal law.

Two letters from the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, obtained by CNN, indicate that Harvard has challenged the DOJ’s authority to investigate. If the school fails to provide documents to the department by Dec. 1, the agency may file a lawsuit against the school, according to the letters.

"As we have repeatedly made clear to the Department of Justice, the university will certainly comply with its obligations under Title VI. In the process, we have an obligation to protect the confidentiality of student and applicant files and other highly sensitive records, and we have been seeking to engage the Department of Justice in the best means of doing so," Anna Cowenhoven, Harvard's associate dean of communications, said in a statement to CNN.

The Asian American Coalition for Education, which headed up the coalition filing the lawsuit, said in a Nov. 22 press statement that is applauds the Justice Department’s investigation.

AACE president Yukong Zhao said: “It has been more than 10 years since the first Asian American student filed a complaint against Ivy League schools’ discriminatory admission practices. Today, we finally saw that the U.S. government is taking concrete action to strive for equal protection of the laws to Asian American children.”

“This sends a strong signal to many other universities: Please stop unlawful admission practices; treat Asian American students fairly and lawfully. Asian Americans follow the laws, work hard and have been making tremendous contribution to American economic prosperity and technology leadership in the world. Our children deserve to have equal rights to pursue their American dreams,” stated Zhao.

AACE claimed that Harvard and several other elite U.S. universities are “using de facto racial quotas, racial stereotypes and higher admissions standards to discriminate against Asian American applicants.”

After adjusting for extracurricular activities and other factors, an Asian American applicant has to score on average 140 points higher than a White student, 270 points higher than a Hispanic student and 450 points higher than a Black student on the SAT, in order to have the same opportunity getting into America’s top universities, claimed AACE.

It noted that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids racial discrimination in federally funded programs or institutions, and relevant U.S. Supreme Court rulings have specifically banned the use of racial quotas, racial stereotypes and higher standards to unduly harm applicants of any racial groups during college admissions.

Last year, however, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the “race-conscious” admissions policies at the University of Texas, saying that the university’s affirmative action plan of taking race into consideration as one factor of admission is constitutional. On a 4-3 vote, the court approved the limited use of affirmative action policies by universities. 

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