WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is investigating whether Yale University illegally discriminated against Asian-American applicants, escalating its effort to challenge race-based admissions policies at elite universities.
The Justice and Education Departments have begun a civil rights investigation into Yale’s use of race as a factor in its admissions process and whether it has unfairly prevented qualified Asian-American students from attending the school, according to a letter from the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights that was obtained by The New York Times.
Investigators are scrutinizing “whether the university discriminated against the applicant and other Asian-American applicants by treating applicants differently based on race during the admissions process,” according to the letter, which was sent to a student named Yukong Zhao, who complained about the practice two years ago to the Justice Department.
Those claims echo a lawsuit brought by a group of Asian-American students who did not get into Harvard University and said the school systematically discriminated against them by suppressing the number of Asian-Americans who attended to make room for less qualified students of other races.
The Justice Department is also investigating Harvard for how it uses race in its admissions policies, and last month it publicly backed the students suing the school. That case is set to go to trial in federal court in Boston next month.
“I write now to state unequivocally that Yale does not discriminate in admissions against Asian-Americans or any other racial or ethnic group,” Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, wrote in a message to students and faculty and staff members. “We will vigorously defend our ability to create a diverse and excellent academic community.”
The Justice Department declined to comment on the investigation. The department “takes extremely seriously any potential violation of an individual’s constitutional rights,” said Kelly Laco, a spokeswoman. The Education Department does not comment on continuing investigations, a spokeswoman said.
Conservatives have long opposed affirmative action, and a handful of states have banned the use of affirmative action policies at public universities. Both the Harvard and Yale investigations and the lawsuit could have far-reaching consequences for college admissions policies and for affirmative action, a tool that was born in the civil-rights era and intended to make American education and opportunity more equitable.
If Yale is found to have treated Mr. Zhao differently during the admissions process based on race, that would violate the Civil Rights Act.
The Yale investigation is based on Mr. Zhao’s complaint to the Justice Department on Sept. 20, 2016. He is part of the Asian American Coalition for Education, a group that has also accused Harvard University of using race as a factor to unfairly reject top-performing Asian-American students. The group filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Harvard case, accusing the school of unfairly discriminating against Asian-American applicants.
In his complaint, Mr. Zhao alleged that three Ivy League schools — Yale, Brown University and Dartmouth College — all “unfairly denied undergraduate admission to Asian-American applicants by treating them differently based on their race during the admission process,” according to the Education Department letter.
The department dismissed the complaints against Dartmouth and Brown because, it said, Mr. Zhao failed to provide sufficient evidence of discrimination at those institutions.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division began investigating Yale’s admissions practices in April of this year, according to the letter. The Education Department joined later.
Yale contends that its admissions process is not intended to create a specific racial mix of students, but rather a student body with a wide variety of ethnic, socioeconomic and other backgrounds. The college said that it takes academic achievement, interests, leadership skills and background into account during the admissions process.
“One goal of Yale’s admissions process — forged through decades of experience and review — is to create a vibrant and varied academic community in which our students interact with people of different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives,” Mr. Salovey said.
Mr. Salovey accused the Justice Department of undertaking the inquiry as part of a larger plan to dismantle affirmative action. “This investigation takes place in the context of legal challenges at other universities aimed at overturning Supreme Court precedent permitting the consideration of race in college admissions,” he said.