College & Workforce Readiness

New Emails Surface in Trump Administration Probe of Race-Conscious College Admissions

By Catherine Gewertz — January 12, 2018 2 min read
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New emails have surfaced that show that the Trump administration’s probe of affirmative action policies in higher education is getting direction and support at the top levels of the civil rights division at the U.S. Department of Justice.

A July 17, 2017 email from John Gore, the acting assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, says that the department is “moving forward” to assemble lawyers from within the Justice Department to investigate “a university’s admission policy.”

The message was part of a chain of emails released Friday by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request. It shows that the investigation is a top priority for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said Jon M. Greenbaum, chief counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee.

“You have the acting head of the civil rights division, who oversees a thousand employees, personally involved in this job announcement. That’s unusual,” said Greenbaum, who worked in that division for seven years before joining the Lawyers’ Committee. “It shows how high a priority this is.”

The Justice Department did not respond immediately to a request for comment on the newly disclosed emails.

Gore’s email reflects what The New York Times reported when it broke the story in August: that the probe would be handled by the division’s “front office,” which is staffed by political appointees, rather than career lawyers. The series of emails obtained by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, all aimed at getting the hiring notice posted, referred to the soon-to-be-hired team as the “front office detail.”

The posting for attorneys shows that the civil rights division was assembling a team of lawyers from within the Justice Department to work on “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.”

In response to news media reports in August, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to confirm or deny that the administration was launching a probe of race-based admissions in higher education. She said that the Justice Department “will always review credible allegations of discrimination on the basis of any race.”

Later the same day, the Justice Department issued its own statement, saying that press reports about the personnel posting were “inaccurate,” and that the posting sought volunteers to investigate one administration complaint of racial discrimination, filed in 2015 by a coalition of Asian-American groups, “that the prior administration left unresolved.”

BuzzFeed reported in October that the Justice Department was investigating admissions practices at Harvard University.

Emails obtained by the Lawyers’ Committee show that in mid-August, Kathleen Toomey, the chief of staff at the civil rights division, and Beth C. Kelley, senior counsel in the division, had received, and were presumably reviewing, applications from lawyers who had applied for that detail.

The emails don’t say how many resumes they were reviewing, but an earlier email from division staffers indicated that as of Aug. 8, the day before the notice would expire, only two applications had been submitted.


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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.


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