Sessions says DOJ to probe Harvard University on affirmative action

In a potentially crippling assault on affirmative action, Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday acknowledged the Department of Justice is taking aim at race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard University, one of the nation's most exclusive institutions of higher education.

The news comes as the university continues to defend itself in a discrimination lawsuit that parallels the Department of Justice probe. At issue is whether stellar Asian students are being passed over so Harvard can admit less-qualified African American and Hispanic students for the sake of artificial diversity.

The lawsuit was filed in 2016 by Edward Blum -- the conservative activist who sued the University of Texas over its admissions policies, a case that led to a major Supreme Court decision upholding UT's narrowly tailored affirmative-action plan.

RELATED: Images of affirmative action cases

7 PHOTOS
Affirmative Action cases, protests
See Gallery
Affirmative Action cases, protests
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 15: Students protest in support of affirmative action, outside the Supreme Court during the hearing of 'Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action' on October 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. The case revolves around affirmative action and whether or not states have the right to ban schools from using race as a consideration in school admissions. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 15: A woman protests in support of affirmative action, outside the Supreme Court during the hearing of 'Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action' on October 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. The case revolves around affirmative action and whether or not states have the right to ban schools from using race as a consideration in school admissions. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 14: Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette (R) speaks at a press conference with Jennifer Gratz, CEO of XIV Foundation, the day before going before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of 'Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action,' on October 14, 2013 in Washington, DC. 'Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action' centers around affirmative action in higher education and whether or not a state has the constitutional right to ban college admissions from giving 'preferential treatment' to potential students based on race during the admissions process. In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled in Grutter v. Bollinger stating that states have the right to consider race in the admissions process as part of an 'individualized, holistic review of each applicant's file' - whether or not the state's right to consider race is an obligation is what is at stake. In 2006 the voters of Michigan passed an amendment by 58% banning racial considerations in a college admissions process, which the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action is now fighting. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 10: People wait in line to enter the U.S. Supreme Court on October 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. Today the high court is scheduled to hear arguments on Fisher V. University of Texas at Austin, and are tasked with ruling on whether the university's consideration of race in admissions is constitutional. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 10: Travis Ballie holds a sign that reads (Diversity Works) in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on October 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. Today the high court is scheduled to hear arguments on Fisher v University of Texas at Austin, and are tasked with ruling on whether the university's consideration of race in admissions is constitutional. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - FEBRUARY 13: Students hoping for a repeal of California's Proposition 209 hold signs as they protest outside of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on February 13, 2012 in San Francisco, California. A Federal appeals court will hear arguments in a lawsuit that wants to overturn Proposition 209, a voter approved measure that prohibits affirmative action at state universities. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Justice Samuel Alito, a staunch member of the court's conservative bloc, issued a scathing dissent to the court's majority opinion in that case. Blasting the outcome, Alito's eyebrow-raising opinion practically invited another Supreme Court challenge to college admissions formulas that consider a student's race when deciding who gets in.

That 5-3 decision, however, came before the court had a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia's eventual replacement, Justice Neil Gorsuch, is widely considered to be on the far right of the ideological spectrum.

The Justice Department's plans surfaced after American Oversight, a good-government watchdog group, filed a Freedom of Information Act, asking for any documents related to affirmative action investigations at two schools, including Harvard.

Kristin Clarke, executive director of Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who filed the FOIA request with Government Oversight, called the news "shameful" and "an unprecedented assault on efforts to promote racial diversity in higher education" and in a statement Thursday demanded a Senate investigation.

"This is further proof that Attorney General Sessions and the Trump administration will continue to invoke civil rights only to further their own political agenda – not to provide equal protections for all Americans," Austin Evers, Executive Director of American Oversight, said in a statement Thursday. "It speaks volumes that Jeff Sessions' Justice Department is prioritizing attacking affirmative action at a time when white nationalists are marching openly in the streets."

The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law's FOIA request covered all records related to a Justice Department investigation seeking instances of reverse discrimination against white students, according to The New York Times. In response, Justice Department said it was looking into an "administrative complaint filed by a coalition of 64 Asian-American associations in May 2015."

According to the complaint, "Many Asian-American students who have almost perfect SAT scores, top 1 percent GPAs, plus significant awards or leadership positions in various extracurricular activities have been rejected by Harvard University and other Ivy League Colleges while similarly situated applicants of other races have been admitted."

The complaint, however, mirrors the lawsuit Blum filed against Harvard in 2016, alleging that high-achieving Asian American students were denied admission while the school accepted lower-achieving African American and Hispanic students for the sake of campus diversity.

Blum, who is the director of the Project for Fair Representation, represented Abigail Fisher, a white student, in her anti-affirmative action lawsuit against the University of Texas. When the high court rejected the case, Blum decided that an Asian American student would be a more sympathetic plaintiff; he set up a recruiting website for students willing to go to court against Harvard and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the state's flagship public school.

Though he failed in the Fisher case, Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos both agree with Blum, and Alito has publicly declared that race-conscious admissions are unfair to Asian Americans.

Earlier this year, a federal judge rejected Harvard's request to dismiss Blum's lawsuit. Neither Harvard nor the Justice Department have commented on the issue.

RELATED: Issues on education 

6 PHOTOS
2016 issues: Education politics, student loans, common core
See Gallery
2016 issues: Education politics, student loans, common core
UNITED STATES - JUNE 10: From left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, participate in the press conference in the Capitol to call for the elimination of student loan debt at public higher education institutions on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 10: From left, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, participate in the press conference in the Capitol to call for the elimination of student loan debt at public higher education institutions on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
EXETER, NH - AUGUST 10: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a town hall meeting at Exeter High School August 10, 2015 in Exeter, New Hampshire. Clinton discussed college affordability and student debt relief. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 19: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., attends a news conference with members of the National Nurses Association at the Senate swamp on legislation 'to eliminate undergraduate tuition at public colleges and universities and to expand work-study programs,' May 19, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
US President Barack Obama applauds a speaker after his introduction before signing a memorandum on reducing the burden of student loans on June 9, 2014 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.