Group Sues Department of Education

Luke Ciancarelli

November 2, 2016

The anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education on Oct. 27, alleging the department’s unwillingness to release what the group believed to be public information from a federal investigation.

The lawsuit followed a seven-year review of Princeton University’s admissions policy conducted by the department’s Office of Civil Rights, which was initiated in 2008 after an Asian applicant to Princeton filed a complaint against the college alleging unlawful discrimination. The review concluded in September 2015 and found no evidence of discrimination in Princeton’s admissions process.

The office released a 20-page report of its findings. Dissatisfied with the summary, SFFA requested from the office all documents it reviewed. After nine months of no response from the office, SFFA took the case to court.

“Discrimination against Asian applicants to our nation’s most competitive universities is shameful and must be ended,” SFFA President Edward Blum said in the group’s press release Oct. 27. “Although the [Department of Education] exonerated Princeton’s policies, outside experts who will examine the data may come to very different conclusions.”

Blum declined to provide further comment to the News, and the Department of Education did not respond to request for comment on the lawsuit.

Jian Li, who filed the initial complaint against Princeton, told the News in 2006 that although he earned a perfect score of 2400 on his SAT and near-perfect scores on three SAT II subject tests, he was rejected from Princeton. Li was also the president of American Field Service, a nonprofit organization that provides international exchange programs, a participant in American Legion Boys’ State and a volunteer for a Costa Rica community service project.

Following Li’s complaint, the Department of Education started an investigation into whether Princeton was in compliance with its nondiscrimination standard for admissions policy.

The department reviewed substantial documents, including 15 years of Princeton’s admissions data, the school’s official statement of core values, admissions procedures, applicant files, internal memoranda and training materials for the admissions staff for the class of 2010. The OCR also conducted interviews with Princeton admissions staff.

“The [Office of Civil Rights] has concluded this investigation not only with a finding that Princeton did not discriminate on the basis of race or national origin, but that the University’s holistic review of applicants in pursuit of its compelling interest in diversity meets the standards set by the Supreme Court,” Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber said in a response to the department’s findings in 2015.

Four months after the conclusion of the review, SFFA submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act demanding the release of all documents reviewed by the Department of Education.

“SFFA has continually communicated with [Department of Education] to request that the agency fulfill its legal obligation to provide the requested documents. But as of today, more than nine months after SFFA submitted its [application], the [department] has provided no documents to SFFA,” the Oct. 27 press release from SFFA read.

Brian Taylor, director of Ivy Coach, a New York-based college consulting firm, said that he thought the college admissions process in general was unfair to Asian-American and Asian students.

“Admissions officers, if they admit it or not — and more often than not, they won’t admit it — they discriminate against Asian-American and Asian applicants,” Taylor said.

Still, Taylor said SFFA and the Asian American Coalition for Education — a group consisting of over 100 organizations that has also been involved in litigating on behalf of Asian-American college applicants — do not have legal arguments and strategies strong enough to win their cases. Taylor said these groups were choosing “the wrong students” to advocate for, adding that these examples tended to be “well-rounded applicants” whom selective schools such as Princeton are not looking for to begin with.

SFFA has also filed lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 2014 for allegedly discriminating against college applicants. Both of these suits are ongoing.

Blum has been an influential force in bringing major cases before the Supreme Court. Most famously, Blum was behind both the Shelby County v. Holder decision that nullified provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, as well as the series of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin cases, in which a white applicant to UT Austin alleged that she was discriminated against in the admissions process.