The Trump administration has sided with a group suing Harvard University over claims it discriminates against Asian-American applicants in a case that could ultimately challenge federal laws over affirmative action.
The case, filed in 2014, pits America’s oldest university against a group called Students for Fair Admissions, run by Edward Blum, a financial analyst and conservative activist from Maine who since the 1990s has made a name for himself challenging affirmative action policies.
Opponents of Mr Blum say that he is deliberately setting out to harm African-Americans and other groups by removing admissions policies like Harvard’s.
Harvard, the most selective university in the US, admitted only 4.59 per cent of applicants this year. Princeton and Columbia admitted 5.5 per cent, while Yale took 6.3 per cent of those wishing to attend.
Of those accepted to Harvard this year, 22.7 per cent described themselves as Asian-American, 14.5 per cent as African-Americans, 10.8 per cent as Latino and 2.3 per cent as Native American and Native Hawaiian.
Asian-Americans compromise 5.6 per cent of the US population, according to the latest census.
The justice department ruled on Thursday, in a “statement of interest”, that Students for Fair Admissions should be allowed to proceed with their case, scheduled for October. The case, if all appeals are exhausted, could end up at the Supreme Court and potentially be used to overturn the landmark 1978 ruling which forbade quotas but permitted colleges to use race as one criterion among many to obtain a diverse class.
"No American should be denied admission to school because of their race," said Jeff Sessions, the attorney general.
Mr Sessions argued the school’s use of a "personal rating," which includes highly subjective factors such as being a "good person" or "likeability," may be biased against Asian-Americans.
Mr Sessions said the university admitted that it scores Asian-American applicants lower on personal rating than other students, and argued that Harvard admissions officers monitor and manipulate the racial makeup of incoming classes.
"The Supreme Court has called such attempts to ‘racially balance’ the makeup of a student body ‘patently unconstitutional,’" he said.
Mr Blum celebrated the news, stating: "We look forward to having the gravely troubling evidence that Harvard continues to keep redacted disclosed to the American public in the near future."
Harvard said it was “deeply disappointed” but not surprised “given the highly irregular investigation the DoJ has engaged in thus far.”
“Harvard does not discriminate against applicants from any group, and will continue to vigorously defend the legal right of every college and university to consider race as one factor among many in college admissions, which the Supreme Court has consistently upheld for more than 40 years,” the university said in a statement.
“Colleges and universities must have the freedom and flexibility to create the diverse communities that are vital to the learning experience of every student.”
In briefs filed in support of Harvard at the end of July, students and alumni said that they “condemn” the plaintiffs’ “attempt to manufacture conflict between racial and ethnic groups in order to revive an unrelenting agenda to dismantle efforts to create a racially diverse and inclusive student body through college admissions.”
“It’s alarming that Trump is aligning himself with anti-civil rights activist Edward Blum in this subversive attempt to say that civil rights protections cause discrimination,” said Jeannie Park, the head of the Harvard Asian-American Alumni Alliance.
“Asian-Americans have long benefited from policies to increase equal opportunity and still do. Our fear is that Harvard’s admissions system is just the latest target in a larger fight to roll back protections for people of colour in all fields, including government and business.”