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Yale joins Harvard as target of DOJ discrimination investigation

Yale University said it is a subject of a federal investigation into its admissions policies.Jessica Hill/Associated Press

The Department of Justice and Department of Education have opened an investigation into whether Yale University discriminates against Asian-American applicants, widening a probe into Ivy League admission practices just weeks before a challenge to Harvard University’s use of affirmative action goes to trial.

Yale University confirmed Wednesday it had become a subject of the federal investigation.

“This investigation takes place in the context of legal challenges at other universities aimed at overturning Supreme Court precedent permitting the consideration of race in college admissions,” university president Peter Salovey wrote in an e-mail to the Yale community.

Yale “unequivocally” does not discriminate against Asian-Americans or any other racial or ethnic group, Salovey said.


The investigation into admissions practices marks a tumultuous week on the Yale campus. On Thursday, Brett Kavanaugh, a Yale alum, is set to testify before a Senate committee with his nomination to the US Supreme Court in peril over allegations of sexual misconduct as a teenager. Kavanaugh has denied the allegations, but Yale students in recent days have held sit-ins and protested on Capitol Hill.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department declined to comment on the specifics of the Yale admissions investigation. Under the Trump administration, federal authorities have aggressively challenged the use of affirmative action at selective colleges and urged campuses to adopt race-neutral policies.

“The Department of Justice takes extremely seriously any potential violation of an individual’s constitutional rights,” Kelly Laco, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said Wednesday.

The Wall Street Journal first reported that federal authorities had launched a review of Yale’s practices.

The investigation stems from a complaint filed in 2016 by the Asian American Coalition for Education, alleging that Yale, Brown University, and Dartmouth College limited the number of Asian-American students they admitted. The organization has separately complained about Harvard’s practices.

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights informed the Asian American Coalition for Education in a letter Wednesday that it had opened an investigation into whether Yale discriminated based on race. The Education Department also informed the group it would dismiss the complaints against Brown and Dartmouth, since no specific students had come forward to say they have been injured by admissions practices at those schools.


“We welcome the investigation,” said Jack Ouyang, vice president for the coalition. “It’s about equal education rights for all the kids.”

Affirmative action advocates have raised concerns that these cases are pitting minority groups against each other in an effort to dismantle affirmative action. But Ouyang said these cases are about fairness.

“With affirmative action, the intention is good, but it should be not be abused,” Ouyang, who lives in New Jersey, said. “We shouldn’t remediate past discrimination by new discrimination against a different group.”

Last year, the Justice Department opened an investigation into Harvard’s admissions policies, and last month it intervened in a federal lawsuit by Students for Fair Admissions that alleged Harvard discriminates by capping the number of Asian-American students it admits.

Students for Fair Admissions has backed previous failed legal efforts to overturn affirmative action polices on campuses involving a white student.

Harvard has denied the allegations and has argued that it uses race in admissions as a way of building a diverse student body.

In court filings, the Justice Department has said that Harvard’s admissions policies “may be infected with racial bias.” The case, slated to go to trial in mid-October, could dismantle decades-old affirmative action policies in higher education.


At Yale, Asian-Americans made up almost 18 percent of the nearly 5,750 undergraduates on campus. They are the largest minority group on campus, followed by Hispanics (13 percent) and black students (7 percent).

Yale uses a similar approach to evaluating applicants as Harvard and other elite universities. On Wednesday, Salovey described the admissions process as taking into consideration many factors, including students’ academics, demonstrated leadership, background, and likelihood they will contribute to the Yale community.

Yale said its admissions of Asian-Americans has grown. Asian-Americans made up less than 14 percent of incoming freshmen students 15 years ago, but make up nearly 22 percent of the most recent class.

“Yale will cooperate fully with the inquiries conducted by the federal government,” Salovey said. “We also will vigorously defend our ability to create a diverse and excellent academic community.”

The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights has investigated discrimination against Asian-American applicants several times in recent decades, including most recently at Princeton University. In those cases, the agency usually found that the universities acted legally, said Peter McDonough, with the American Council on Education, a university trade group.

“One would hope that the Office of Civil Rights wouldn’t flip-flop over what the law is,” McDonough said.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.