U.S. Investigating Yale Over Complaint of Bias Against Asian-American Applicants

By Katie Benner and Erica L. Green

The Yale investigation could have far-reaching consequences for college admissions policies and for affirmative action.CreditCreditDave Sanders for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is investigating whether Yale University illegally discriminated against Asian-American applicants, according to a letter delivered on Wednesday, escalating its effort to challenge race-based admissions policies at elite universities.

The Justice and Education Departments have begun a civil rights investigation into whether Yale discriminated against Asian-Americans “by treating applicants differently based on race during the admissions process,” according to a letter from the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights sent to the student who filed a complaint against Yale. The letter was obtained by The New York Times.

The Justice Department is also investigating Harvard’s use of race in its admissions policies, and last month it publicly backed students who accused Harvard in a lawsuit of systematically discriminating against them by suppressing the number of Asian-Americans who attend the school to make room for less-qualified students of other races.

The Harvard and Yale investigations and the lawsuit could have far-reaching consequences for college admissions policies and for affirmative action, a tool born in the civil-rights era to make American education and opportunity more equitable. Some conservative groups have long opposed affirmative action, and a handful of states have banned affirmative action policies at public universities.

“This is a battle over the ability of individual institutions to define diversity in a manner that they see appropriate,” said Peter McDonough, general counsel at the American Council on Education. “Institutions have the right to determine what their student bodies will look like in terms of athletes, musicians, geographic diversity, and racial and ethnic diversity. There is a constituency that wants to eliminate those last two things.”

If Yale is found to have treated the student differently during the admissions process based on race, that would violate the Civil Rights Act. The school’s president, Peter Salovey, denied the claims.

“Yale does not discriminate in admissions against Asian-Americans or any other racial or ethnic group,” he wrote in a message to students and faculty and staff members. “We will vigorously defend our ability to create a diverse and excellent academic community.”

The Justice Department declined to comment on the investigation. The department “takes extremely seriously any potential violation of an individual’s constitutional rights,” said Kelly Laco, a spokeswoman. The Education Department does not comment on continuing investigations, a spokeswoman said.

In a complaint sent to the Justice Department on Sept. 20, 2016, Yukong Zhao, a civil-rights activist, alleged that three Ivy League schools — Yale, Brown University and Dartmouth College — all “unfairly denied undergraduate admission to Asian-American applicants by treating them differently based on their race during the admission process,” according to the Education Department letter.

The department dismissed the complaints against Dartmouth and Brown because, it said, Mr. Zhao failed to provide sufficient evidence of discrimination at those institutions.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division began investigating Yale’s admissions practices in April of this year, according to the letter. The Education Department joined later based on “information related to a particular Asian-American applicant’s experience applying to Yale,” the department’s letter said.

Yale contends that its admissions process is not intended to create a specific racial mix of students, but rather a student body with a wide variety of ethnic, socioeconomic and other backgrounds. The college said that it takes academic achievement, interests, leadership skills and background into account during the admissions process.

“One goal of Yale’s admissions process — forged through decades of experience and review — is to create a vibrant and varied academic community in which our students interact with people of different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives,” Mr. Salovey said.

Mr. Salovey accused the Justice Department of undertaking the inquiry as part of a larger plan to dismantle affirmative action. “This investigation takes place in the context of legal challenges at other universities aimed at overturning Supreme Court precedent permitting the consideration of race in college admissions,” he said.

Conservative advocates have sought a case to take to the Supreme Court that would challenge schools that take race into account when admitting students, and now they have a more sympathetic administration and the prospect of a conservative majority on the Supreme Court if President Trump’s nominee to the court, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, is confirmed.

Mr. Zhao is the president of the Asian American Coalition for Education, a group that has also accused Harvard of using race as a factor to unfairly reject top-performing Asian-American students. The group filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Harvard lawsuit, accusing the school of discriminating against Asian-American applicants. That trial is scheduled to begin in federal court in Boston on Oct. 15.

While Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has suggested that affirmative action is settled law, her newly appointed head of civil rights, Kenneth L. Marcus, whose office is investigating Yale, has indicated he believes otherwise.

Mr. Marcus, who was confirmed to his post in June, previously led the Louis D. Brandeis Center, which denounced race-conscious admissions policies. The organization, which primarily champions rights for Jewish students, filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit a decade ago in which a woman accused the University of Texas at Austin of racially biased admissions policies. It also argued that Asian students now suffer the same discrimination in university admissions that Jewish students once did.

Shortly after Mr. Marcus started at the department, his office joined the Justice Department in rescinding two Obama-era guidance documents that addressed ways to increase diversity and reverse decades-long discriminatory practices within elementary and secondary schools.