The Department of Justice is Reportedly Investigating Harvard’s Affirmative Action Policy

By Sameer Rao Oct 05, 2017

The New York Times reported in August that the Department of Justice (DOJ) planned to look into a 2015 lawsuit against Harvard University that alleged the Ivy League school’s affirmative action practices discriminated against Asian Americans. That report inspired American Oversight executive director Austin Evers and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law president Kristen Clarke to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to see if an investigation was underway. They told Buzzfeed yesterday (October 4) that the department confirmed an active investigation into alleged admissions quotas that the university previously denied.

Buzzfeed published a September 29 letter that Nelson Hermilla, who works in the DOJ’s civil rights division, sent in response to the FOIA request from the two legal advocacy organizations. It addresses Evers and Clarke’s request for information about lawsuits against both Harvard and the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill’s affirmative action practices that conservative legal strategist Edward Blum filed in 2014:

This is in further response to your Freedom of Information Act request dated August 30, 2017, in which you requested records related to any Department of Justice or Department of Education investigation of admissions policies, practices, procedures, or criteria at Harvard University or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Regarding your request for records pertaining to the University of North Carolina, the Division has conducted a thorough search and I have determined that there are no records that are response to this portion of your request.

Please be advised that records you have requested related to investigations of admissions policies are exempt from disclosure pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(A), which concerns records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes the release of which could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.

Buzzfeed suggests that portion about unreleased records “compiled for law enforcement purposes," indicates an investigation. Evers told Buzzfeed that American Oversight followed up afterwards with the DOJ, where an official confirmed an "active" investigation into Harvard. 

“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 provide equal protections for all Americans," Evers told Buzzfeed. "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."

Clarke said in a separate statement that the department has "launched an unprecedented assault on efforts to promote racial diversity in higher education."

Spokespeople for Harvard and the DOJ reportedly declined to comment when contacted by Buzzfeed.