US ends lawsuit challenging Yale’s use of race in admissions

Under Biden, Justice Department abandons case pushed by Trump

February 3, 2021
Yale University at the arched gate at Vanderbilt Hall
Source: iStock
Yale University at the arched gate at Vanderbilt Hall

The US Justice Department, under Biden administration leadership, has dropped a lawsuit that accused Yale University of illegally favouring black applicants over white and Asian American students.

In a two-sentence legal filing with the federal court in Connecticut, government prosecutors declared their “voluntary dismissal of this action”.

The case reflected the Trump administration’s political and legal campaign against affirmative action. Its dropping signals the Biden administration’s determination to revive the tool for helping minority students.

Public sentiment on the matter, however, is less clear. In a surprise outcome from the US elections in November, voters in California rejected a proposal to reinstate the use of affirmative action in admissions at their public universities.

The US Supreme Court has repeatedly made clear that colleges may consider racial balance as one factor in their admissions decisions.

But the Trump administration, after a two-year investigation of Yale, sided with Asian American groups that complained that the Ivy League institution used race as a deciding factor in hundreds of undergraduate applications each year.

Yale accused the Trump Justice Department of not fairly considering all evidence in the matter.

Yale – and US higher education leaders more broadly – celebrated the department’s decision under Biden administration leadership to withdraw the case.

In a statement, the university said its use of racial considerations has allowed it to “assemble an unparalleled student body, which is distinguished by its academic excellence and diversity”.

“Yale has steadfastly maintained that its process complies fully with Supreme Court precedent, and we are confident that the Justice Department will agree,” a university spokeswoman said.

The American Council on Education, the umbrella advocacy group for US higher education, said it welcomed the “strong signal” sent by the Justice Department in dropping “this unwarranted and politically motivated lawsuit”.

“Colleges and universities that are clearly following the law should not have to fear expensive and time-consuming legal assaults from the federal government,” ACE’s president, Ted Mitchell, said in his statement.

Harvard University in 2019 defeated similar Trump administration-backed accusations brought on behalf of some Asian American applicants.

In its letter to Yale’s attorney announcing the withdrawal of the lawsuit, the Justice Department said it was “taking this action in light of all available facts, circumstances and legal developments”, including Harvard’s win in its case.

The letter, from Gregory Friel, the deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division, did, however, advise Yale that the university remains part of an ongoing review of civil rights compliance that the Trump administration began in 2018.

The Trump administration halted that review in favour of the lawsuit, the Yale spokeswoman said. “Yale welcomes the opportunity to resume sharing information,” she said, “because we are confident that our process complies fully with decades of Supreme Court decisions.”

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