WASHINGTON — The Trump administration, reversing an Obama-era policy, encouraged schools and universities on Tuesday to stop considering race as a factor in school admissions.
"The American people deserve to have their voices heard and a government that is accountable to them. When issuing regulations, federal agencies must abide by constitutional principles and follow the rules set forth by Congress and the president," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in rescinding six Obama administration documents intended to give schools guidance on adopting affirmative action programs.
Sessions launched an effort last fall to revoke Obama guidelines that went beyond what the Supreme Court has said about affirmative action and failed to give students equal treatment.
The Department of Education said in a tweet that "the protections from discrimination on the basis of race guaranteed by the Constitution" and federal laws will remain in place.
Tuesday's action does not forbid using race as a plus factor in admissions, a practice the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld, most recently in a 2016 decision by Justice Anthony Kennedy. His ruling said universities are entitled to deference "in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission."
Vanita Gupta, who ran the Justice Department's Civil Rights division under Barack Obama and is now president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, condemned the change in policy.
"In furtherance of its agenda of intolerance and discrimination, the Trump administration is once again failing in its responsibility for the well being of all students by tossing aside diversity and inclusion — core American values," Gupta said.
The president of the American Council of Education, Ted Mitchell, said, "At a time when our society grows ever more diverse and the need for engagement with individuals from other backgrounds is vitally important, the federal government should not threaten colleges and universities in their efforts to construct inclusive campuses.
"Today, the Trump administration is sending precisely the wrong message to institutions that are committed to following four decades of Supreme Court precedent," Mitchell added.
The federal government's policy now reverts to what it was during the George W. Bush administration, which said schools should not consider race in admissions unless it was essential to achieving their educational missions. The new pronouncement does not have the force of law, and schools committed to the practice can continue to use it. But it is a further sign of the Trump administration's opposition.
The Trump Justice Department earlier signaled its concern about the fairness of affirmative action, launching an investigation of Harvard University's admissions policies. It also formally expressed its interest in a 2014 lawsuit filed by dozens of Asian-American organizations who said Harvard's policies discriminate against them.
In his 2016 ruling, Kennedy indicated that the affirmative action program at the University of Texas at Austin met a stringent legal test. But he left the door open to future challenges. "It remains an enduring challenge to our nation's education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity," he wrote.
Even with Kennedy on the court, affirmative action faced an uncertain future. Kennedy's departure at the end of the month and President Donald Trump's appointment of a replacement makes it more likely that future challenges to end the practice will succeed.