Charlie Mahoney/The New York Times, file
This article was updated on August 5. A correction is appended.
The majority of students accepted into the incoming freshman class at Harvard University are not white, the second year in a row an institution that prides itself on educating future presidents, CEOs, and world leaders has reached that milestone.
But Harvard’s push to broaden the diversity of its student ranks comes as the Trump administration intensifies its focus on affirmative action policies and suggests it will investigate how colleges shape the racial makeup of their campuses.
The US Justice Department is preparing to redirect resources from its civil rights division toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants, The New York Times reported this week.
On Wednesday, the Trump administration said it had no broad plans to investigate whether college and university admissions programs discriminate against students based on race and that it was looking into a single complaint from a coalition of Asian-American groups filed in 2015. The coalition filed an administrative complaint against Harvard University, alleging that the school and other Ivy League institutions are using racial quotas that shut out high-scoring Asians.
Still, news about the administration’s interest in affirmative action policies caught colleges off-guard and raised worries in academia and among civil rights advocates.
On Wednesday, several universities in Massachusetts defended their admissions practices and said they meet legal requirements. They stressed that building a campus of students from different races, places, and a variety of experiences was crucial to their academic mission.
“To become leaders in our diverse society, students must have the ability to work with people from different backgrounds, life experiences, and perspectives. Harvard remains committed to enrolling diverse classes of students,” said Rachael Dane, a spokeswoman for the university. “Harvard’s admissions process considers each applicant as a whole person, and we review many factors, consistent with the legal standards established by the US Supreme Court.”
Of the freshmen students admitted to Harvard this year, 50.8 percent are from minority groups, including African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, and Native Hawaiians. That’s up from 47.3 percent last year, according to the university.
Harvard recruiters fanned out across the country, visiting 150 communities in the United States, meeting with students and parents at night and with high school counselors for breakfast, according to the school.
Harvard admitted 22.2 percent of students who identified as Asians, about the same as last year.
Many top schools also conduct robust recruiting efforts to attract minorities.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst, where the freshmen minority enrollment has climbed from 21 percent in 2010 to nearly 30 percent in 2016, has made greater efforts to recruit students from high schools in cities such as Springfield and Boston, said James Roche, the school’s associate provost of enrollment management.
At UMass Amherst a student’s race and ethnicity are part of the admissions process, but not the defining factor, Roche said.
The school stands by its admissions policy and doesn’t plan any changes based on the Justice Department’s stepped up interest in affirmative action, he said.
“As we’ve learned with this administration, we need to let things shake out and see where they fall,” Roche said. “What we’re doing fits the legal standards.”
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is also monitoring how the Justice Department will proceed.
“A diverse student body is critical to the educational mission of MIT,” said Kimberly Allen, a spokeswoman for the university.
Edward Blum, the president of Students for Fair Admissions, which brought the lawsuit against Harvard claiming its admissions policy discriminates against Asian students, said he was surprised by the Justice Department’s interest in the case.
“I am truthfully befuddled by it,” Blum said. “No one has reached out to us.”
The Washington Post on Wednesday reported that the Justice Department’s call for lawyers to review the complaint from Asian coalitions came after career staffers who specialize in education issues refused to work on the investigation out of concerns that it was contrary to the division’s longstanding approach to civil rights in education.
Blum has a similar case pending against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
And he also pushed a case brought by Abigail Fisher, a student who said the University of Texas rejected her because she is white. Last year, the US Supreme Court, in a 4-to-3 vote, decided that college admissions officers could continue to use race as one of several factors in deciding who gets into a school. The decision surprised university officials and disappointed those who had hoped to end race-based admissions.
But the ruling does require universities, if they are challenged, to show that 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, said Vinay Harpalani, a law professor at the Savannah Law School, who specializes in affirmative action.
A more active Justice Department on this front could push schools to demonstrate that they are looking at other factors before race, Harpalani said.
“The fact that the Trump [administration] may investigate this may make universities more wary about using race in their admissions policies,” he said. “Universities typically don’t like to make details on their race-conscious policies public, because the line between legal and illegal policies is not fully clear . . . and because there are always potential lawsuits out there, and also because this is such a politically charged issue.”
Universities aren’t likely to entirely stop considering race as a factor in admissions, but having the Justice Department watching every move could have a chilling effect, said Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which has studied college racial and economic diversity.
“They’re nervous, and this will make them more nervous,” Carnevale said.
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