The Justice Department on Thursday accused Yale University of illegally discriminating against Asian American and white students in admissions, a major escalation of the administration's attacks on affirmative action.
If Yale does not change its admissions policy, "the Department will be prepared to file a lawsuit," according to a letter from Eric Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.
Yale said the school was dismayed by the allegation and called the government's conclusion hasty and meritless.
After receiving complaints from Asian American students, the Justice Department two years ago launched an investigation of Yale's admissions process. The investigation concluded that Asian American and white applicants are only one-tenth to one-fourth as likely to be admitted as African American applications with comparable academic records.
"Yale’s race discrimination imposes undue and unlawful penalties on racially-disfavored applicants, including in particular Asian American and White applicants," Dreiband said in his letter.
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected efforts to stop affirmative action in college admissions, which the court has said can be justified as a way to achieve diversity in the student body. But such programs must be narrowly tailored, using race as a plus factor, its rulings have held.
By contrast, the Justice Department said in its letter Thursday, Yale considers an applicant's race at several steps in the admissions process. "Yale's approach is thus a far cry" from the admissions processes upheld by the Supreme Court, the government said.
"There is no such thing as a nice form of race discrimination," Dreiband said in a separate statement. "All people should be treated with decency and respect and without regard to the color of their skin."
Because Yale receives millions of dollars in federal funds, it is subject to a provision of civil rights law that bans discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin and other factors.
The university said the Justice Department reached its conclusion before allowing Yale to provide all the data the government requested.
"Had the department fully received and fairly weighed this information, it would have concluded that Yale’s practices absolutely comply with decades of Supreme Court precedent," the school said.
The school said in reviewing applicants, it considers several factors, "including their academic achievement, interests, demonstrated leadership, background, success in taking maximum advantage of their secondary school and community resources, and the likelihood that they will contribute to the Yale community and the world."
The Justice Department joined a lawsuit against Harvard based on similar allegations. But a federal judge ruled last fall that while Harvard's admissions process may not be perfect, it was not the result of racial bias or conscious prejudice.