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DOJ Discrimination Claims Against Yale Echo Harvard Admissions Lawsuit

Jessica Hill

Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale are known for their exclusive admissions rates. Catherine Ho said she knew she needed to write a stellar personal statement for her application to stand out.

“I identify as Asian American, but more specifically, Vietnamese American,” Ho said, “My parents and family are refugees and I wrote about the importance of the Vietnamese language in my essay to Harvard College.”


Now she’s a rising senior at Harvard. She’s one of dozens of multicultural students who defended the college admissions process against a lawsuit that claims discrimination against Asian applicants. Ho said she’s worried that the lawsuit aims to end race as a factor in admissions.

“Time and time again, race matters. Race affects how we live our daily lives,” Ho said, “We should be able to talk about it and be able to talk about ourselves in our full personhood.”

In 2014, a group called Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard on behalf of some Asian American applicants. It’s backed by a white conservative named Edward Blum (who declined an interview). His lawsuit claims the college had quotas that led admissions to reject Asian students in favor of Black or LatinX students. A federal judge sided with Harvard last year, but that decision will be challenged in appellate court in September.

Now, the head of the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ, Eric S. Dreiband, is set to offer oral argument against Harvard. This week, less than a month before his court appearance, the same DOJ official sent a letter to Yale. The letter concluded an investigation by the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice. It found that Yale admissions discriminates against White and Asian applicants. In it, Dreiband asks the university to stop considering race as a factor in admissions.

Yale denies the findings. Civil rights lawyers familiar with the fight to end race as a factor in college admissions say Dreiband appears to be escalating the situation.

“Issuing factual findings against a university as well known as Yale, taking the significant step of saying the head of the civil rights division will argue in the harvard case at the appellate level…it has a chilling effect on universities,” saidMichaele Turnage Young, lawyer for the NAACP Defense and Education Fund.

Young represents white and multicultural students at Harvard in the admissions lawsuit. She said DOJ claims against Yale are the latest attack on affirmative action by the Trump administration.

“It is certainly the case that universities may see what the US DOJ is doing and decide that they do not want to expose themselves to risk that they are the next target,” Young said, “Even without procuring a court decision in their favor, [DOJ officials] are definitely placing a substantial thumb on the scale.”

Yale President Peter Salovey said in a statement that race will be a small factor in this year’s admissions process because it is still legal.

But the DOJ claims race is too big of a factor in Yale’s process to comply with the Supreme Court’s rulings.

“Asian American and White applicants have one-tenth to one-fourth of the likelihood of admission as African American applicants with comparable academic credentials.”

Neither Yale nor the DOJ agreed to an on-the-record interview. A statement from Yale said the DOJ did not wait for the university to provide all documentation before closing its investigation.

“it’s certainly disappointing to hear that the DOJ may not have had the full universe of evidence before making a determination like this,” said Michelle Turnage Young of the NAACP, “Such a weighty decision as this.”

The DOJ started investigating the admissions process at Yale two years ago. It also looked into Brown and Dartmouth after some Asian American groups filed complaints in 2016. Harvard student Catherine Ho said she understands why some Asian applicants who didn’t get accepted might complain.

“Meritocracy is so alluring to so many people. The model minority myth is perpetuated within and outside of many Asian American communities,” Ho adds, “There’s certain groups trying to use Asian Americans as a racial wedge and I, as an Asian American, felt compelled to speak out.”

Ho said the Asian American community is diverse and has the highest rate of income inequality. She wants all of those factors — including race — considered when colleges look at applications.

Cassandra Basler, a former senior editor at WSHU, came to the station by way of Columbia Journalism School in New York City. When she's not reporting on wealth and poverty, she's writing about food and family.
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