According to published reports, the Trump administration appears poised to direct the Department of Justice to begin investigating, and potentially litigating against, institutions over what it characterizes as “intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.” This initiative, first reported by the New York Times, is purportedly reflected in an internal DoJ communication obtained by the Times seeking Department staff attorneys to volunteer to work on the investigations and/or litigation. At this point, it is not clear whether institutions will be targeted on a random basis or (perhaps more likely) based on complaints received by the Department.
This initiative, of course, comes in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s rulings with respect to the University of Texas’s affirmative action admissions programs in the Fisher decisions. Those decisions recognized the creation of a diverse student body as a compelling educational interest, but also emphasized that an institution must not make race the defining feature of a candidate’s application for admission, and must be able to demonstrate that it has seriously considered race-neutral alternatives and that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity “about as well and at tolerable administrative expense.” Although this may not require institutions to implement race-neutral alternatives and demonstrate their failure, as we have previously advised, institutions should ensure that they are able to document evaluation of such alternatives in order to defend challenges to their admissions programs. The apparent advent of the reported Department of Justice initiative may quickly render this consideration more important than ever, and the prospect of challenges more than theoretical.
In April, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, upholding Michigan’s State Constitutional Amendment prohibiting, among other things, any preferential treatment on the basis of race in the admissions process at Michigan’s public colleges and universities. Yesterday, the Department of Education responded to that decision by “confirming” that Schuette leaves intact the Supreme Court’s prior decisions recognizing that institutions may use all legally permissible methods to achieve diversity goals, noting that
[t]hese include, absent any restrictions in state law, appropriately tailored programs that consider the race of individual applicants as one of several factors in an individualized process to achieve the educational benefits that flow form a diverse student body.
This “Dear Colleague” letter also reaffirmed the continuing impact of the Department’s previously issued “Guidance on the Voluntary Use of Race to Achieve Diversity in Postsecondary Education” and its “Questions and Answers about Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.” While clearly the Department is correct that, as a legal matter, the Court’s most recent decision does nothing to directly alter the legal landscape for private institutions when it comes to promoting diversity (if for no other reason than Schuette did not present that question to the Court), it begs the question whether this decision nonetheless brings the Court just one step closer to a significant change if the question does present itself for review again.
In a number of cases since Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke, the Supreme Court has upheld in a variety of contexts the use of some degree of race based preferences in the admissions process for colleges and universities. Although not its most recent decisions in this area, two of its most discussed decisions came out of Michigan. In one, Gratz v. Bollinger the Supreme Court in 2003 found that the undergraduate admissions process at the University of Michigan violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution by its use of race based preferences. At the same time, it also held, in Grutter v. Bollinger, that the University of Michigan Law School’s use of race based preferences was permissible. Following these decisions, Michigan voters adopted Proposal 2, which became Article I, Section 26 of the State Constitution. As relevant, it provides:
The University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and any other public college or university, community college, or school district shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting. (Emphasis added.)
This Proposal was challenged in two cases. The District Court initially found that it was permissible for the voters of Michigan to adopt this constitutional amendment. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in an original 2-1 decision and a subsequent 8-7 en banc decision, held that the Proposal was unconstitutional. Today, in a 6-2 decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the U. S. Supreme Court has upheld the State’s adoption of this amendment. The plurality opinion was written by Justice Kennedy, and joined in by Chief Justice Roberts (who also issued a concurrence) and Justice Alito. Justice Scalia issued a concurrence which was joined by Justice Thomas. Justice Sotomayor wrote a dissent, joined in by Justice Ginsburg. Justice Kagan did not participate in the Court’s decision. As Justice Kennedy noted at the outset of the Court’s decision:
Before the Court addresses the question presented, it is important to note what this case is not about. It is not about the constitutionality, or the merits, of race-conscious admissions policies in higher education. … In Fisher [v. University of Texas at Austin], the Court did not disturb the principle that the consideration of race in admissions is permissible, provided that certain conditions are met. In this case, as in Fisher, that principle is not challenged. The question here concerns not the permissibility of race-conscious admissions policies under the Constitution but whether, and in what manner, voters in the States may choose to prohibit the consideration of racial preferences in governmental decision, in particular with respect to school admissions.
The plurality opinion essentially concludes that notwithstanding prior Court precedent (creating the “political-process" doctrine) which recognized that voter action which effectively “insinuate[d] the State into [a] decision to discriminate by encouraging that practice,” in a way that “was designed to be used, or was likely to be used, to encourage infliction of injury by reason of race,” could be unconstitutional, that was not the case here. Justice Kennedy closed his opinion by noting that “[t]his is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it. There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this court’s precedents for the Judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.” Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, would overrule the Court’s precedent establishing the political process doctrine, rather than distinguish it away as the plurality did. Justice Scalia also noted that he was parting company with the plurality because he found that their view at least left “ ajar an effects-test escape hatch” that might permit the finding of an Equal Protection Clause violation in the absence of discriminatory intent, based on disparate impact, which he argues has no place in the Court’s jurisprudence. For Justice Sotomayor, Proposal 2 fell squarely within the political-process doctrine: “When the majority reconfigures the political process in a manner that burdens only a racial minority, that alteration triggers strict judicial scrutiny.” As she noted in closing:
The Constitution does not protect racial minorities form political defeat. But neither does it give the majority free rein to erect selective barriers against racial minorities. The political-process doctrine polices the channels of change to ensure that the majority, when it wins, does so without rigging the rules of the game to ensure its success. Today, the Court discards that doctrine without good reason.
As noted at the outset, this decision does not change the legal landscape with regard to the permissibility, as a matter of federal constitutional law, of race conscious admissions policies in higher education. And in fact it has little bearing on what may or can happen in the world of private higher education. It does, however, reaffirm the ability of the electorate to enforce its views at the ballot box on this highly important and charged issue in the realm of public education.
Many colleges and universities are federal contractors and, as such, need to comply with Department of Labor, Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs’ (“OFCCP”) regulations relating to affirmative action. Revised Regulations have been issued by OFCCP addressing affirmative action obligations applicable to disabled individuals under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended ("Section 503"), and to protected veterans pursuant to the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974, as amended ("VEVRAA"), and become effective March 24, 2014. Due to the numerous requirements in these new Regulations, higher education institutions that are federal contractors should start reviewing and implementing procedures to ensure compliance. Ten steps that covered institutions should implement by March 24, 2014 include:
1. Review current electronic systems and databases to determine if there is capacity to capture protected veteran and disability status for both applicants and employees. If not, institutions will need to invest in new systems or methods to capture this required data.
2. Review current referral sources to determine if sources are providing qualified protected candidates; sources that are not should be eliminated and/or new ones should be added. This is a key component for meeting the 8% hiring benchmark under VEVRAA and the 7% utilization goal under Section 503.
3. Ensure all required notices are posted. Where notices are posted electronically, make sure they are accessible to all employees, including those with disabilities. For covered institutions that use electronic or internet-based application processes, an electronic notice must be posted and stored with the electronic application to inform job applicants of their EEO rights.
4. Review collective bargaining agreements to determine if the agreements include notice of the institution’s affirmative action and non-discrimination policies and request for cooperation. If they do not, institutions should send annual letters to each union, notifying the union(s) of the policies and requesting cooperation.
5. Review and update the list of all existing subcontracts, including vendors and suppliers, who should be receiving the mandatory written notice to subcontractors of the institution’s affirmative action efforts and request for cooperation.
6. Revise contracts and purchase orders to include the revised mandatory EEO language under both Section 503 and VEVRAA.
7. Make sure solicitations and advertisements include all the protected categories – minorities, females, disabled individuals, and veterans. OFCCP has indicated in recent FAQs that just using "D" and "V" is not adequate since abbreviations must be commonly understood by jobseekers.
8. Update recordkeeping procedures to incorporate the three-year retention requirement for specific records under Section 503 (documentation and assessment of external outreach and data collection analysis) and VEVRAA (documentation and assessment of external outreach, data collection analysis, and benchmarking records).
9. Revise self-identification forms inviting applicants to self-identify at both the pre-offer and post-offer stage of the selection process. All Section 503 invitations must use the new OFCCP form which will be posted on OFCCP’s website once approved. Under the Section 503 Regulations, employees must be invited to self-identify again every five years and reminded on an annual basis that they can voluntarily update their status at any time.
10. Adopt written reasonable accommodation procedures to ensure uniformity in processing requests. The OFCCP’s guidance for creating procedures (listed in Section 503 Regulations as Appendix B) can be used in developing such procedures.
The United States Department of Justice and the United States Department of Education recently issued a jointly-authored Dear Colleague Letter and accompanying “Questions and Answers” document discussing the Supreme Court’s June 2013 decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. This joint guidance reaffirmed the Departments’ mutual belief in the value of efforts by colleges and universities to create racially diverse student bodies “in a lawful manner,” and observed that the Supreme Court “did not change” what institutions must do to narrowly tailor their efforts to meet the compelling interest in diversity. After Fisher, as before, institutions must not make race the defining feature of a candidate’s application for admission, and must demonstrate that the consideration of an individual applicants’ race in admissions is necessary because workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice. This characterization is consistent with the Supreme Court’s opinion in Fisher. However, the most significant aspect of Fisher is its emphasis on a reviewing court’s obligation to perform a searching inquiry to determine the necessity of race-conscious measures and, correspondingly, the need for institutions to be able to prove that they have engaged in an ongoing consideration of race-neutral alternatives. In this regard, one question left unanswered by the Supreme Court was whether an institution must actually attempt to implement race-neutral alternatives before implementing race-conscious policies, or whether an institution need only demonstrate that a race-neutral alternative cannot be expected to work under prticular circumstances. While the Dear Colleague Letter and Q&A did not address this question or otherwise provide direct guidance on what level of consideration must be given to race-neutral alternatives, a senior Office of Civil Rights official remarked publically the same day that such alternatives “don't have to be tried and used” before implementing race-conscious practices. This provides a welcome degree of comfort to colleges and universities that OCR will not require them to put affirmative action policies on hold in order to first experiment with race-neutral measures, but institutions should nevertheless ensure that they can demonstrate the basis for their conclusions that those policies are necessary to create the desired diversity in their respective student bodies. However, there is some concern that this message may be unrealistically comforting. Already in some states, either as a result of litigation, laws passed by state legislatures or the impact of public referendums, public institutions are prohibited from considering race at all in the admissions process. The Supreme Court is poised to rule on the legality of such a ban via referendum in Michigan. In oral argument in that case, at least some justices expressed skepticism that such a ban was prohibited. Where the Court may go in the future on the permissibility of race conscious admissions decisions for private institutions is not free from doubt. As a result, some schools are looking more closely at implementing race-neutral practices where possible.