Trump affirmative-action move raises concern for colleges

The Trump administration’s intent to investigate whether using race in college admissions discriminates against white students and to sue schools deemed in violation brought sharp rebuke Wednesday from some local and national education officials who see it as frivolous and divisive.

“It’s an approach that reflects a campaign of fear and intimidation to prevent institutions from following what the Supreme Court has already said was constitutionally permissible,” said Liliana Garces, formerly an associate education professor at Pennsylvania State University and now at the University of Texas, whose race-based admission policy gave rise to a U.S. Supreme Court case.

The Supreme Court last summer upheld in a 4-3 ruling the university’s use of race in admissions. In fending off a lawsuit filed by a white applicant denied admission, the university argued that it needed to consider race to ensure diversity of its student body and that it had exhausted other means of achieving that goal.

Garces said colleges must stand up against Trump’s attempt to have the Justice Department look into college admission policies, first reported Tuesday by the New York Times.

“It puts them in a leadership role to defend our democracy,” she said.

But Michael Moreland, a Villanova University law professor who watched the Supreme Court case closely, said the Justice Department is well within its rights to make sure that colleges are using race correctly in admissions.

“Legally, colleges are required to show that their use of a race-conscious admission policy is limited to achieve the purpose of diversity,” he said. “How careful are universities in their use … we just don’t know. A lot of these admissions processes are not fully transparent. That’s what is raising concern on the part of people in the Department of Justice.”

The Trump administration initiative re-ignites a long-standing debate that has given rise to legal cases for years: Is it right for colleges to give priority to minority students traditionally underrepresented on their campuses over students with higher test scores? Local college admissions officials had hoped that the matter would have been settled with last year’s supreme court decision.

“More than anything else, I’m frustrated and confused,” said Jess Lord, dean of admission and financial aid at Haverford College.

Haverford, he said, has been using race in the limited way in which the Supreme Court decision permits it.

Despite colleges’ use of race-conscious admission policies, the percentages of black, Hispanic, and other underrepresented minorities is not reflective of the general population, noted Randall C. Deike, who oversees admissions at Drexel University.

“When you look at the makeup of race and ethnicity on college campuses, many campuses are woefully behind compared to the makeup of their general population,” he said. “We would love to have more underrepresented students of color in our class.”

About 13 percent of Drexel’s incoming freshman class is black, Hispanic, or other underrepresented groups.

Deike isn’t too worried about the Trump administration’s attention to admissions.

“I think it would be pretty hard for the Justice Department to start suing colleges and universities around the country because they believe they are discriminating in one way or another,” he said.

Drexel was one of many universities that joined in court briefs filed in the University of Texas case, arguing in favor of allowing the use of race as a criterion to enhance diversity. Other local schools that joined include Haverford, Swarthmore College, and Temple University.

“As part of a holistic review, race-conscious admissions helps us build a much better community,” Deike said. “It’s important that our students work and are in class with folks who come from different backgrounds and have different views of the world.”

Camille Z. Charles, a professor of sociology, Africana studies, and education at the University of Pennsylvania, said she was not surprised at Trump’s latest effort, which she maintains has no basis in fact.

“A lot of what has come out of  [the Justice Department] has been a rolling back of any sort of progress that was made,” she said. “There’s really no empirical support of this notion of reverse racism or reverse discrimination. It comes from an oversimplified understanding of what makes a good college student [that is] relying entirely on GPA and test scores.”

John B. King Jr., president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group, touted the benefits of diversity to schools, communities, and students of all backgrounds.

“I am deeply disheartened that the Trump administration appears to be taking a hard line against efforts to increase campus diversity rather than focusing on addressing the persistent opportunity gaps facing students of color and low-income students,” said King, former secretary of education under President Barack Obama.

Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the directive appears to be “changing course on a key civil rights issue.”

“The announcement today that it is now actively seeking to challenge efforts that colleges and universities have undertaken to expand educational opportunity is an affront to our values as a country and the very mission of the Civil Rights Division,” she said.