The Department of Justice’s response to a Freedom of Information Act request all but confirms an active investigation into alleged discrimination in Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policies.
American Oversight, a nonprofit organization formed to fight “unethical conduct throughout [President Donald Trump's] administration,” filed the FOIA request with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law—another nonprofit—on Aug. 30. In the request, they asked for documents relating to any investigation by the DOJ or Department of Education into admissions policies or criteria at Harvard and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In a letter of response, DOJ official Nelson D. Hermilla wrote that no such documents exist regarding UNC, but did not deny the existence of Harvard-related documents, writing instead that the requested records are protected from release as they pertain to an ongoing investigation.
Hermilla's response suggests that the DOJ is moving forward with its plans—confirmed by a department spokesperson in August—to investigate allegations that the Harvard admissions department discriminates against Asian American applicants. An internal DOJ document sought to recruit lawyers in the Civil Rights Division to look into schools that could be discriminating against white applicants, though the spokesperson later said the inquiry would be narrowly targeted towards Harvard.
BuzzFeed News reported last week that American Oversight had obtained further confirmation from the DOJ that there is an ongoing investigation into Harvard’s admissions policies.
“This initiative reflects a major policy shift, with signs of inappropriate partisan political meddling,” American Oversight Executive Director Austin R. Evers and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law President Kristen Clarke wrote in their FOIA request.
The DOJ investigation echoes the accusations leveled against both UNC and Harvard by anti-affirmative action group Project on Fair Representation. The lawsuit against Harvard, filed in 2014, charges that the College's admissions department employs illegal racial quotas in evaluating applicants.
Several legal experts have suggested that the DOJ could end up joining the lawsuit against Harvard, choosing to a file “statement of interest” in the case, submit an amicus brief, or file to “intervene”—request to join the suit on behalf of either the plaintiff or defendant.
The Harvard lawsuit is currently in late stages of its discovery phase. Expert discovery and depositions are scheduled to complete on May 1, 2018.
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