The US Justice Department said Tuesday that it is investigating Harvard University’s admissions policies and accused the school of refusing to cooperate, ratcheting up a fight that could have implications for affirmative action policies on campuses across the country.
The Justice Department released letters confirming that it had opened a probe into whether Harvard had violated civil rights laws, following up on allegations that it had limited its admissions of Asian-American students. The federal agency threatened to sue Harvard over what it called “delays and challenges” in producing documents related to the investigation.
The Justice Department’s aggressive pursuit of the case, stemming from complaints over two years old, drew applause from conservative opponents of affirmative action, but critics accused Attorney General Jeff Sessions of playing politics.
“This investigation is a welcome development,” said Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit that filed a lawsuit against Harvard in 2014, claiming that the university caps the number of Asian-Americans it admits each year. Blum was previously involved in an affirmative action case against the University of Texas involving a white student.
The Justice Department’s correspondence with Harvard is a warning to universities that the agency plans to spend time and resources scrutinizing the use of race admissions policies, said Vinay Harpalani, a law professor at the Savannah Law School who specializes in affirmative action.
“This is the first step in an attack on affirmative action that is politically motivated,” Harpalani said. “It is designed to appeal [to] white resentment against people of color — a common theme in [President] Trump’s rhetoric and policy.”
Harvard said it will comply with its legal requirements to give the government access to information in the admissions investigation. But the university also has “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,” Harvard said in a statement Tuesday.
While the correspondence is unclear about exactly what documents the Justice Department has requested, it notes that Harvard has already produced much of the information in the 2014 lawsuit. A judge ordered Harvard to submit admissions data by race, grade point average, SAT scores, legacy, and other criteria for the past six years, in that suit, Blum said.
This year, 22.2 percent of all students admitted into Harvard identified as Asian-American, about the same as last year. International students from China, India, and other Asian countries are counted separately, Harvard officials said.
The question about whether Asian-American students are disadvantaged by race-conscious admissions is a longstanding issue, but complex to prove. Most elite universities argue that they use a variety of factors to determine admission .
A 2009 study by a Princeton University sociologist showed that Asian-American students had to score 140 points higher than white students on their SATs, 270 higher than Hispanics, and 450 points higher than African-Americans to gain entrance into elite colleges. But the research did not consider other factors in admissions, such as extracurricular activities, recommendation letters or essays, and counselor letters.
In 2015, after a nine-year investigation into allegations of bias against Asian-American applicants at Princeton University, the US Department of Education cleared the school. Federal officials determined that Asian-Americans had a hard time getting into Princeton, but so did everybody else.
Still, for Asian-American students and families there is a worry that the bar has been set much higher for them to gain admissions into elite schools.
Christina Qiu, a junior at Harvard, said she supports race-conscious admissions policies, but knows the pressures that Asian-Americans feel in the admissions process. She grew up in New Jersey, where Asian students retook the SATs multiple times even after earning a 2,300 out of 2,400 score, in order to beat out other Asian-American students, Qiu said.
Lin Sun, who started an Asian cultural group at Boston Latin High School, said parents often discuss how difficult it is to get their children into Ivy League institutions.
“The question comes up of ‘Why are we held to different standards?’ ” said Sun, whose one son graduated from Harvard and another from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “On the other hand, colleges want to assemble the students the way they hope to achieve the best balance. It’s a complex situation.”
Still, officials with the New Jersey-based Asian American Coalition for Education, which filed a 2015 complaint against Harvard with the both the Justice Department and the Education Department, said the Trump administration’s decision to investigate Harvard admissions is the right step.
For families without the resources to get tutors and help to ensure top test scores, these admissions policies are particularly harmful, said Swan Lee, a spokeswoman for the group and a Brookline resident.
“This is one area that’s been overlooked for a long time,” Lee said. “Colleges should include more transparency in their admissions. What is there to hide?”
Previous affirmative action cases have focused primarily on the admissions of black and white students.
Last year, the US Supreme Court, in a 4-to-3 vote, ruled that college admissions officers could continue to use race as one of several factors in deciding who gets into a school. The ruling does require universities, if they are challenged, to show they had no choice but to use race to create diversity on campus and that other factors alone, such as family income or an advantage to first-generation college students, couldn’t create a similar mix of students.
The Justice Department has given Harvard until Dec. 1 to comply with the document request or may file a lawsuit to force the university’s compliance, according to its letter to the university.
The department could also participate in the existing federal lawsuit by filing in support of Students for Fair Admissions, legal experts said.
Vanita Gupta, who headed the Obama administration’s civil rights division in the Justice Department, said the agency’s involvement raises red flags.
“The Attorney General seems to be on the hunt for a case to bring a significant challenge to affirmative action, despite the fact that the Supreme Court has continuously upheld the lawfulness of race conscious admissions in higher education,” Gupta said in a statement.Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@
globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.