Trump administration targets affirmative action in admissions

Threat to sue universities with policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants ‘deeply disturbing’

August 2, 2017
United States of America president-elect Donald Trump speaking at podium
Source: iStock

The Trump administration is preparing to investigate and potentially sue US universities over affirmative action admissions policies that are perceived to discriminate against white applicants, according to reports.

An internal Justice Department document obtained by the New York Times seeks lawyers to work on a project on “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admission”, interpreted as a reference to programmes that allow enrolment of students from ethnic minorities with lower grades than would usually be required.

The move would represent another attack on the US higher education sector under the presidency of Donald Trump, following proposed funding cuts, a travel ban on some international students, and criticism of campuses’ “no-platforming” of right-wing speakers.

The Times reported that the Justice Department project would be run by the civil rights division’s “front office”, where White House political appointees work, rather than the educational opportunities section, which is staffed by civil servants.

Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told the Times that an assault on affirmative action was “misaligned” with the longstanding goal of widening participation in US higher education.

“This is deeply disturbing,” she said. “It would be a dog whistle that could invite a lot of chaos and unnecessarily create hysteria among colleges and universities who may fear that the government may come down on them for their efforts to maintain diversity on their campuses.”

Neal H. Hutchens, professor of higher education at the University of Mississippi, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that the administration’s actions could “put a chill” on efforts to improve diversity on campus.

“This just creates one more hurdle and barrier to furthering important equity and diversity goals,” said Professor Hutchens, who said that the government would be better off focusing on how to make ethnic minority students “feel safe and protected”.

The US Supreme Court upheld the use of affirmative action admissions policies relating to race in a case last year, voting by four to three in favour of a programme at the University of Texas at Austin. But there are several other lawsuits pending, involving Harvard University, the University of North Carolina and other institutions.

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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