The Trump administration is moving to rescind Obama-era guidance to colleges and universities on how they can use race in admissions decisions to promote diversity, according to an administration official.
In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that race can be a consideration for college admissions, following an argument by a white woman who felt discriminated against in her application to a University of Texas program in 2008.
Anurima Bhargava, who headed civil rights enforcement in schools for the Justice Department under President Barack Obama and co-authored the Obama-era guidance, said that the policy withdrawal was timed for brief filings in the Harvard litigation, due at the end of the month.
The Trump administration did not offer a road map for schools moving forward. The departments wrote a "Dear Colleague" letter to announce the withdrawal of seven documents released during the Obama administration that laid out the legal framework for the affirmative action policies.
"The Trump administration is sending precisely the wrong message to institutions that are committed to following four decades of Supreme Court precedent", said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, a trade group that represents presidents of numerous country's colleges and universities. Affirmative action, a heated issue, has been revisited by the U.S. Supreme Court several times since since the 1970s.
A lawsuit against Harvard over the alleged discrimination against Asian-Americans is working its way through the courts now.
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But a senior Justice Department official denied that these decisions were rolling back protections for minorities.
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"We need to learn more specifically what the implications of this reported change in policies means for higher education and in particular for our institution", Lorna Hernandez Jarvis, the chief diversity officer at Whitworth University, said in an email. "When issuing regulations, federal agencies must abide by constitutional principles and follow the rules set forth by Congress and the president", he said. "It isn't shocking that guidance would be withdrawn", he said. The new pronouncement does not have the force of law, and schools committed to the practice can continue to use it.
McDonough said the action could have a chilling effect on colleges as they review their admission methods.
The new affirmative action guidance could add to an already contentious fight over the next justice.
The Trump administration's plan would scrap the existing policies and encourage schools not to consider race at all. In 2007, the high court sharply limited how school districts could use race in enrollment.The ruling struck down race-based policies in Seattle and Louisville. But she said it will have no impact on laws that govern school integration and admissions, nor will it affect the hundreds of schools under desegregation orders. The new case, particularly with the recent retirement announcement of Justice Kennedy, puts that ruling in danger.