UPDATED: January 24, 2018 at 9:17 p.m.
As the Department of Justice probe into Harvard’s admissions practices stretches into at least its fifth month, experts disagree over the driving force behind the investigation.
Some speculate the probe is politically motivated; others insist the investigation is more run-of-the-mill, meant to unearth information about the College’s often-opaque admissions practices. The ongoing Justice Department investigation, likely begun sometime over the summer, focuses particularly on allegations of discrimination against Asian-American applicants in Harvard’s admissions process.
William R. Yeomans, a former acting assistant attorney general under the Obama administration, said last week he believes the probe is likely “ideologically driven.”
Yeomans, who served the Justice Department in various roles for 26 years, said he thinks the political underpinnings of the probe into Harvard’s admissions are “pretty clear.” He pointed to the Obama administration’s decision not to take up similar complaints filed several years ago by a group of Asian-American student advocacy associations.
“I think it’s very interesting and somewhat telling that the Civil Rights Division under President Trump has taken this up,” Yeomans said.
Yeomans also said he thinks the department’s handling of this case is telling, calling it “procedurally irregular.”
“They have recruited people directly for the front office, which is the political portion of the Civil Rights Division,” Yeomans said.
Recently released internal emails show that a top official in the department likely requested attorneys to investigate admissions at Harvard. Yeomans said he thinks the investigation may be an effort to start a fresh round of litigation over affirmative action.
In an emailed statement, Department of Justice spokesperson Devin O'Malley wrote that the department “is committed to protecting all Americans from all forms of illegal race-based discrimination.” O'Malley added that Harvard has been facing allegations of discrimination against Asian Americans in its admissions process since at least May 2015.
"The prior administration did nothing to investigate that complaint," O'Malley wrote.
Other analysts disagreed with Yeomans. Roger Clegg, a former deputy assistant attorney general who served under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, called the idea the department is conducting the investigation for political reasons “laughable” in an interview Monday.
Clegg, who worked in the department from 1982 to 1993, said he thinks the shifts in the Justice Department’s activities between the current and the previous administration reflect only “differences of opinions.” He said the fact these differences exist does not make them “small-p political.”
“In my view, the Department was never more politicized under any administration than under the Obama administration,” Clegg said.
He added the department’s motivations most likely lie in the fact that Harvard is a high-profile university, making concerns over discrimination at the school a high-profile case.
“Harvard University has been sued for discriminating against Asian-Americans,” Clegg said. “It would be shocking if the Justice Department were not interested in this.”
Still other experts offered varying assessments of the situation.
Peter F. Lake ’81, a Stetson University College of Law professor, said he sees “many objective reasons” apart from political motivation that would explain the investigation.
He speculated the investigation may be motivated in part by practical considerations. For example, the Justice Department might want to obtain documents explaining Harvard’s admissions policies, he said. The College has historically released little data about its admissions process.
Matthew Cregor, a staff attorney at the Boston-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, said he is concerned the department’s investigation may be inappropriate in light of the ongoing lawsuit introduced by Students for Fair Admissions, an Asian-American advocacy group. The Lawyers' Committee recently filed an amicus brief in support of affirmative action at Harvard.
“What’s disconcerting is the degree of federal effort that’s being expended to disrupt an ongoing, important case inside the federal district court,” Cregor said.
The lawsuit is currently in the late stages of its discovery phase. Expert discovery and depositions are scheduled to complete on May 1, 2018.
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