Federal Civil-Rights Officials Investigate Race-Conscious College Admissions

  • Originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education December 17, 2004
 Copyright 2004 The Chronicle of Higher Education


The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights is investigating a complaint that the University of Virginia discriminates against white applicants for undergraduate admission, and has been asked to look into similar allegations involving North Carolina State University's undergraduate program, the University of Maryland at Baltimore's School of Medicine, and the law schools at the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary.

The investigation of Virginia's undergraduate policies is the office's first such examination of race-conscious college admissions since the U.S. Supreme Court's June 2003 rulings in two cases involving affirmative action at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The Virginia complaint actually was filed in May 2003, one month before the Supreme Court rendered those decisions, but the civil-rights office did not notify the university that it was undertaking an investigation until early August 2003, after the court had ruled.

The investigation was not made public until last week, when Kenneth L. Marcus, who oversees the civil-rights office, mentioned it in an interview with The Chronicle.

Mr. Marcus said the Office for Civil Rights opened the investigation after evaluating the complaint and taking it seriously enough to seek information and a resolution from the university.

The civil-rights office is also looking into the use of race-conscious admissions by the University of Wisconsin at Platteville, but that investigation dates back to 1999, and the civil-rights office appears to have put it on a back burner. In the last two years, the office has focused much less on reviewing race-conscious admissions policies than on pressing colleges and public agencies to abandon policies that limit certain scholarships and programs to members of particular races. Most recently, it persuaded the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to agree last month to open a statewide scholarship program to nonminority students.

The investigation of Virginia's undergraduate admissions policies stems from a complaint filed by the father of a young man who was denied a seat in the 2003 entering freshman class. In its letter to UVa's president, John T. Casteen III, the civil-rights office said that the father alleges that the university has admissions policies that discriminate against white males and refused to admit his son "because he was not a minority or female student."

In a letter to the civil-rights office, the rejected applicant's father, a New York resident, said his son, a graduating high-school senior, "had been passed over in the name of diversity." He said he decided to file the complaint after the university failed to return both his calls and those of U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, Democrat of New York, whom he had recruited to help press his case.

The civil-rights office has a policy of not disclosing the identity of people filing such complaints. University officials declined last week to comment on the matter.

The federal civil-rights office also would not comment on the complaints involving the law schools at Virginia and William and Mary, the Maryland medical school, and North Carolina State. Roger B. Clegg, who filed those complaints last fall as general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a group opposed to racial preferences, said the civil-rights agency was still evaluating the complaints and had not decided whether to undertake formal investigations.

Because the complaints remain under evaluation, the higher-education institutions themselves have not been notified and given a chance to respond. For that reason, officials at North Carolina State, the University of Maryland at Baltimore, and the University of Virginia declined last week to comment.

"There are no students at the College of William and Mary who do not belong here," William T. Walker, a spokesman for the college, said last week.

Mr. Clegg argued that the institutions' admissions policies consider race and ethnicity "to such a heavy extent" that they violate the guidelines set forth in the Michigan decisions. In those rulings, the Supreme Court held that college admissions offices could give some consideration to race and ethnicity, but must consider race-neutral alternatives, refrain from using formulaic admissions systems that automatically treat students differently based on their race, and give no more weight to applicants' race than necessary to achieve the institutions' educational goals.

Mr. Clegg said that his organization has sought, in recent months, to buttress its complaints by providing the civil-rights office with information gathered from colleges by the National Association of Scholars and its various state affiliates. The national association has been working in tandem with Mr. Clegg's group and the Center for Individual Rights, another leading group opposed to race-conscious admissions, to use state freedom-of-information laws to force selective colleges to disclose exactly how much weight they give to race. Last week the national scholars' group released an analysis of admissions data from the fall of 2003 that concluded that black applicants received "very strong preference" over equally qualified white applicants in undergraduate admissions at the University of Virginia and law-school admissions at William and Mary, and "moderate preference" over white applicants in undergraduate admissions at North Carolina State.

Although the Center for Equal Opportunity has also filed several complaints with the civil-rights office regarding minority-only programs at colleges, a private citizen was the source of the discrimination complaint, filed in the fall of 2001, that prompted Wisconsin officials to agree last month to make changes in the state's Minority Precollege Scholarship Program.

Under the terms of an agreement negotiated with the civil-rights office, the state agreed to rename the scholarship program "the DPI Pre-College Scholarship Program" and declare white students eligible when the next round of scholarships is awarded, in the coming year. The agreement requires the state agency to alter its Web sites and promotional materials to reflect the changes, and to ensure that all colleges and school districts involved with the program follow suit. The department said that the scholarships would henceforth be awarded to needy students, based on the same eligibility standards used by school districts to determine whether students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches.

The agreement leaves the door open for the department to consider at least taking account of applicants' race if the program fails to help enough minority students under the new, income-based eligibility criteria. The department must apprise the federal civil-rights agency of any such changes, however.

Established in 1985, the program had annually been providing 4,000 black, Hispanic, American Indian, and Asian-American students in grades 6 through 12 with money to attend various precollege programs at institutions throughout the state.