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Justice Department Drops Race Discrimination Lawsuit Against Yale University

Yale University in New Haven, Conn. — pictured during a snowstorm in Jan. 2018 — is no longer facing a federal discrimination lawsuit after the Department of Justice withdrew it on Feb. 3.
John Moore
Getty Images
Yale University in New Haven, Conn. — pictured during a snowstorm in Jan. 2018 — is no longer facing a federal discrimination lawsuit after the Department of Justice withdrew it on Feb. 3.

The U.S. Department of Justice is dropping its controversial lawsuit brought by the Trump administration against Yale University, in which it accused the school of illegally discriminating against white and Asian American applicants in its undergraduate admissions process.

Justice Department lawyers submitted a four-sentence "notice of voluntary dismissal" to the U.S. District Court in Connecticut on Wednesday. A Justice Department spokesperson confirmed to NPR that it had dismissed the lawsuit "in light of all available facts, circumstances, and legal developments."

"The department will further review this matter through its administrative process," the spokesperson added. "The lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice, meaning that neither the United States nor the court has made any final determination in this matter."

The DOJ has also withdrawn its notice finding that Yale's practices violated Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, though the spokesperson said an underlying investigation to ensure Title VI compliance is ongoing.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs that receive federal funding.

The Trump administration had tried repeatedly to discourage affirmative action policies and challenge the ability of higher education institutions to consider race in admissions. In contrast, President Biden has promised to make racial equity a priority for his administration.

The DOJ sued Yale in October 2020 for race and national origin discrimination, alleging that most Asian American and white applicants have one-eighth to one-fourth the likelihood of admission as African American applicants with comparable academic credentials.

Those were among the reported findings of a two-year investigation into Yale's use of race in undergraduate admissions, prompted by complaints from a coalition of Asian American groups, that the DOJ wrapped up in August. At the time, the department said that the investigation had shown race to be "the determinative factor in hundreds of admissions decisions each year," in violation of federal civil rights law.

Yale categorically denied the allegations, and accused the department of making its determination before allowing university officials to provide all of the information it had requested.

On Wednesday, Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart said in a statement that the university is "gratified" with the DOJ's decision to dismiss the case and withdraw its notice of Title VI violation and noncompliance.

"Our admissions process has allowed Yale College to assemble an unparalleled student body, which is distinguished by its academic excellence and diversity," she wrote. "Yale has steadfastly maintained that its process complies fully with Supreme Court precedent, and we are confident that the Justice Department will agree."

The DOJ's decision to issue the Title VI violation notice in August, she said, "unexpectedly and precipitously cut off an exchange of information that Yale looked forward to resuming."

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that colleges receiving federal assistance may consider applicants' race in limited circumstances, as one of multiple factors.

The DOJ acknowledged this in its lawsuit, but said its investigation had determined Yale's use of race to be "anything but limited."

Yale was not the only university to face a challenge to its consideration of race in admissions under the Trump administration. In November, a federal appeals court in Boston rejected a similar lawsuit against Harvard University, holding that the school did not intentionally discriminate against Asian American applicants in its admissions process.

In fact, the DOJ spokesperson cited that ruling as one of the "legal developments" that factored into the department's decision to dismiss the Yale lawsuit.

The Harvard suit was first brought in 2014 by the advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions. Its president, conservative strategist Edward Blum, told member station WGBH in November that they planned to appeal that case to the Supreme Court and ask the justices to "end these unfair and unconstitutional race-based admissions policies at Harvard and all colleges and universities."

In a statement on Wednesday, Blum expressed disappointment at the DOJ's decision to withdraw, and said the group intends to file a new lawsuit against Yale "in the coming days."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.