The Trump administration Tuesday scrapped an Obama-era policy that encouraged colleges to consider race in admissions decisions, saying the push for affirmative action went too far.
The new guideline calls for a race-blind admissions process. It doesn’t require schools to ignore race but gives them the option without fear of running afoul of the Justice Department.
The change was made amid a Justice Department investigation of accusations that Harvard University discriminated against Asian-Americans by subjecting them to more rigorous admissions standards in order to achieve diversity.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the policy was being rescinded along with 23 other guidance documents issued under President Obama.
He said he was reversing the previous administration’s practice of making law through agency edicts.
“That’s wrong, and it’s not good government,” Mr. Sessions said. “In the Trump administration, we are restoring the rule of law.”
Other canceled guidance letters included voluntary use of race to achieve diversity in postsecondary education and use of race to avoid “racial isolation” in elementary and secondary schools. Both were issued in 2011.
The guidance letters encouraging racial considerations in admissions to boost diversity on campus were issued in 2011 and 2013.
The Obama administration guidance said schools have a “compelling interest” in ensuring a diverse student body.
“Institutions are not required to implement race-neutral approaches if, in their judgment, the approaches would be unworkable,” the guidance said. “In some cases, race-neutral approaches will be unworkable because they will be ineffective to achieve the diversity the institution seeks.”
The latest guidance restores the policy under President George W. Bush that promoted “race-neutral methods” in college admissions.
Democrats assailed the policy as racist.
“It is yet another clear Trump administration attack on communities of color and the principle that every student deserves a high-quality education that allows them to thrive,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, Louisiana Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called it shameful.
“I continue to be disappointed that the president of this great country demonstrably cares so little for its non-white residents and their interests,” he said.
Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the policy was an affront to values of diversity and inclusion.
“The Trump administration isn’t just willfully blind to the reality of systemic racism — it’s coldly indifferent to its destructive consequences, and it’s absolutely committed to dismantling any efforts to address our nation’s original sin,” he said.
Giving everyone a fair shot in education should be an election issue that benefits Democrats in November, he added.
The Supreme Court’s most recent ruling on the subject held that universities may use affirmative action as one factor in the admissions process without running afoul of federal laws or the Constitution.
Critics have long contended that the practice can result in discrimination against whites and Asian-Americans. That viewpoint got a boost last year when the Justice Department revived the investigation of Harvard.
Mr. Obama’s civil rights officials dismissed an investigation of similar complaints.
The current investigation stems from complaints by more than 60 Asian-American organizations about discriminatory admissions at Harvard.
Students for Fair Admissions, a group suing Harvard, is led by Ed Blum, a legal strategist who also helped white student Abigail Fisher sue the University of Texas on charges of discrimination in a case that went to the Supreme Court.
Mr. Blum told The Associated Press that his group “welcomes any governmental actions that will eliminate racial classifications and preferences in college admissions.”
Harvard responded to the new guidance by saying it would still use race in admissions to create a “diverse campus community where students from all walks of life have the opportunity to learn with and from each other.”