The Trump administration is signaling that it will begin investigating universities over whether their admissions policies illegally discriminate against applicants, according to a published report.
The New York Times reported late Tuesday that a recent internal Justice Department job posting says it is seeking current employees interested in "investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions."
Advocacy groups believe the language targets affirmative action programs designed to give minorities advantage over other applicants with similar test scores.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to offer details Wednesday.
Such a program would mark the Justice Department's latest effort under Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reshuffle the priorities of the Civil Rights Division, which is not unusual when administrations change. The Trump administration has worked quickly to shift away from its Democratic predecessors in the areas of gay rights, voting rights and investigations of troubled police departments.
Civil rights groups immediately slammed word of the program as a push to end affirmative-action programs that allow colleges to consider race in pursuit of diversity on campus. Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Justice's former top civil rights lawyer in the Obama administration, said the posting shows Sessions' department is "now actively seeking to challenge efforts that colleges and universities have undertaken to expand educational opportunity."
But Roger Clegg, a civil rights official during the Reagan era who now runs the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, said it was an encouraging sign.
"Anytime a university discriminates on the basis of race it ought to creep people out, and it doesn't make any difference who's being discriminated against on the basis of race," Clegg told The Associated Press. "I'm delighted that the Trump administration is doing this."
Clegg said conservatives were displeased with what they saw as the Obama administration's support for race-based admissions by universities.
The Supreme Court last year upheld a University of Texas program that takes account of race, among other factors, in deciding whom to admit, offering a narrow victory for affirmative action. A white Texan who was denied admission to the university sued, but the high court said that the Texas plan complied with earlier court rulings that let colleges consider race in an effort to bolster diversity. The Justice Department's move comes as groups have sued other universities over the practice.
Former Education Secretary John King condemned the new move, saying diversity benefits schools and communities.
"I am deeply disheartened that the Administration appears to be taking a hard line against efforts to increase campus diversity rather than focusing on addressing the persistent opportunity gaps facing students of color and low-income students," King, who served under Obama, said in a statement.
Art Coleman, co-founder of Education Counsel, an education consulting firm, said that the current best practices at universities do not involve mechanically adding extra points based on race, but instead consider a student's racial and ethnic background as part of a holistic approach that also looks at their academic performance, civic activism, extra-curricular activities and others factors.
"Those who claim there is some sort of unfair advantage tend to misdirect or misunderstand the nature of the admissions process," said Coleman. "It's not a mechanical plus factor, it's not like adding points based on race or ethnicity."