Top administrators at the US Justice Department appear to have been involved in launching an investigation into race-based admissions at Harvard University, a sign that the probe may be politically driven, according to a legal civil rights organization.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and legal watchdog group American Oversight, say that e-mails they obtained and released Friday show that the acting US Assistant Attorney General John Gore played a significant role in launching the investigation into allegations that Harvard limited its admission of Asian-American students.
The political appointees “leading the civil rights division are the ones leading this,” said Jon Greenbaum, the chief counsel of the Lawyers’ Committee. “They are putting the federal government resources to this.”
The outside legal groups filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Justice last summer after news organizations reported that the federal agency was ramping up efforts to investigate an unnamed university’s race-based admissions policies and seeking lawyers to join a special detail that reported to Gore. In recent months, the Justice Department has acknowledged that Harvard is the target of the review and has asked the university for documents related to admissions decisions.
The job ad, which was posted on an internal agency website, said attorneys would handle investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.
“We are moving forward with detailing some attorneys to investigate a Title VI investigation of a university’s admissions policy under front office’s supervision,” wrote Gore, who was then the principal deputy assistant attorney general, in a e-mail to the senior counsel in the civil rights division in mid-July. Gore, who would take over leadership of the division two weeks later, added that he had “reviewed and signed off on” the job description.
Greenbaum said it would be unusual for a division head to have so much oversight of an internal job ad.
“How many times would a head person in an organization that includes more than 1,000 people, be involved in a job description?” Greenbaum said. “It shows the importance of it and the political nature of it. . . . They made it a priority.”
The Justice Department on Friday blamed the Obama administration for failing to investigate a complaint filed in May 2015 by 64 Asian-American groups alleging discrimination in Harvard’s admissions policies and practices.
“The prior administration did nothing to investigate that complaint,” said Devin M. O’Malley, a spokesman for the federal agency. “The Justice Department is committed to protecting all Americans from all forms of illegal race-based discrimination.”
Harvard declined to comment Friday about the recently released e-mails, but said the university is cooperating with the investigation.
“Harvard has offered the Department of Justice access to the requested documents in a manner that seeks to prevent public disclosure of confidential and highly sensitive student and applicant information entrusted to our protection,” said Melodie Jackson, a spokeswoman for Harvard, in an e-mail. “We believe our position to be in full compliance with our legal obligation.”
The Justice Department probe is tied to a lawsuit brought against Harvard in 2014 by the Students for Fair Admissions. The nonprofit, led by Edward Blum, claims 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.
In the past, affirmative action cases have focused primarily on the admissions of black and white students.
In 2016, 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.
But foes of race-based admission decisions have focused on a new line of argument — questioning whether Asian-American students are disadvantaged and denied admission, even though they may have higher test scores. Students for Fair Admissions have cases pending against Harvard and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
Legal experts anticipate that these cases will reach the US Supreme Court.
The Justice Department has filed support briefs in private litigation about college affirmative action, but has not opened an investigation with an eye to bringing its own legal case, said Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama.
Each administration sets its legal priorities, but Harvard’s admissions policies already are likely to be robustly litigated in court, said Gupta, who is now president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
“There is no need for the Justice Department to swoop in on this matter,” Gupta said. “It sends a message. The US government is putting its thumb on the scale in a particular area of the law, a controversial area of the law.”Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.