The Justice Department is pushing back on a New York Times article that claimed officials were reshuffling resources in its civil rights division to go after colleges’ affirmative action policies. The story ignited a firestorm after it was published, with civil rights groups and Obama-era education officials quickly condemning the DOJ for what they perceived as an “assault on affirmative action.”
Late Wednesday, DOJ spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores issued a statement calling the press reports “inaccurate.”
“This Department of Justice has not received or issued any directive, memorandum, initiative, or policy related to university admissions in general,” she added. “The Department of Justice is committed to protecting all Americans from all forms of illegal race-based discriminations.”
Instead, Flores said the department was looking for lawyers to investigate a 2015 complaint filed with the Department of Education over Harvard University's race-based quota system. The complaint alleges the Ivy-League school requires Asian students to have SAT scores 140 points higher than white students, 270 points higher than Hispanics and 450 points higher than black students.
Late Tuesday, The New York Times reported that it obtained an internal DOJ job announcement that sought lawyers interested in a project on “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.”
While the notice doesn’t come right out and say which races and ethnicities are considered by the Trump administration as “at risk” for discrimination, the reported implication was that Jeff Sessions’ DOJ could go after affirmative action policies.
Those programs are meant to diversify campuses but The Times reported that the new effort could be used to sue universities over admissions that allegedly go too far and discriminate against white and Asian applicants.
The news triggered an avalanche of criticism directed at the DOJ.
NAACP Legal Defense Fund Associate Director Janai Nelson told Fox News the Trump administration's "assault on affirmative action" is "a dismantling of the pillars of our democracy.
"This administration through this Justice Department is taking us backwards," she said.
John King, former education secretary under President Obama, said he was “deeply disheartened” by the Trump administration’s “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.”
Anurima Bhargava, who led the Educational Opportunities Section of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division under Obama, also called the reported move a “scare tactic” intended to “drum up a bunch of fear and intimidate schools who are trying to provide a pipeline to leadership for all Americans.”
When contacted by Fox News Wednesday morning, the DOJ stopped short of denying the existence of the job posting but insisted it wasn’t “a policy announcement.”
One senior U.S. government official told Fox News that the story in the Times appeared to assume that the memo referred to white students without evidence.
“Whenever there’s a credible allegation of discrimination on the basis of race, the department should look into it,” a DOJ official told Fox News.
Supporters and critics say the DOJ push is intended to target admissions programs that give blacks and Latino students an edge over applicants with similar academic records, the newspaper reported.
Affirmative action policies in the United States have been controversial almost from the start and have been fought in court.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of race in college admissions for the University of Texas, rejecting a challenge brought by a white student. In that case, the court ruled in favor of the university. The ruling made it easier for public colleges and universities to justify reasons for using race in the admissions process.
University of Virginia law professor Deborah Hellman questioned the claims made in the Times.
“The court has recently reaffirmed this positon, so why is the Justice Department looking into bringing cases?” Hellman told Fox News.
The Times also reported the DOJ is looking to redirect resources from the department’s civil rights division. Rather than run the operation through the DOJ’s Educational Opportunities Section, it will be handled by the division’s front office which is composed of Trump’s political appointees.
The Washington Post reported two sources had told them that hand-picked Trump appointees would run the project because the career staffers who specialize in education issues refused to take part, saying it was a violation of the DOJ’s long-term stance on civil rights in school admission policies.
Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Radical Justice Program, said any DOJ push to roll back affirmative action policies would mark an “alarming shift in direction” that threatens progress made by civil rights advocates and the department itself.
Fox News' Samantha Mendiguren, Bill Mears and Jake Gibson contributed to this report.