Stepping Up the Pace at the Office for Civil Rights

Libby Sander and Peter Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education, April 15, 2010

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has been revamping its operations to enforce laws against discrimination more consistently and is in the process of reviewing its approach to complaints of anti-Semitism and its guidance to colleges on race-conscious admission policies and gender equity in athletics, the office’s chief, Russlynn H. Ali, told The Chronicle on Wednesday.

In a wide-ranging interview, Ms. Ali, who took office as assistant secretary for civil rights last May, also said her office has been ramping up its efforts to advise educational institutions, and suggested that it expects to be handling a larger volume of discrimination complaints and approaching some controversies differently than it had under the Bush administration.

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Among the open cases that Ms. Ali inherited upon taking office are investigations of bias against Asian-American students by Princeton University, allegations that the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia gave too much weight to applicants’ race, and challenges to the legality of programs for minority students at Pepperdine University, the University of Missouri, the University of Wisconsin system, and several campuses of the City University of New York.

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But the Obama administration’s intent to be much more supportive of race-conscious admissions than the Bush administration became clear last month, when top lawyers from the Education and Justice Departments joined in submitting a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the University of Texas at Austin in a lawsuit pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The brief reinforces the university’s defense of its race-conscious admission policies.

Whereas the Bush administration had sided against the University of Michigan in a Supreme Court case challenging that institution’s consideration of applicants’ race, the brief the Obama administration lawyers filed last month strongly endorsed Texas’s argument that only race-conscious admissions policies would provide it with sufficient levels of diversity to reap the educational benefits it sought.

“In view of the importance of diversity in educational institutions,” the brief said, “the United States, through the Departments of Education and Justice, supports the efforts of school systems and postsecondary educational institutions that wish to develop admission polices that endeavor to achieve the educational benefits of diversity” in accordance with the Supreme Court ruling upholding Michigan’s consideration of race. Guidance ‘Soon’ on Title IX

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In a speech given in Selma, Ala., last month, Secretary Duncan said the Office for Civil Rights “has not been as vigilant as it should have been” over the past decade in confronting discrimination involving race, gender, and physical disability. He announced plans to open “compliance review” investigations at more than 30 school districts nationwide and at six colleges, which the Education Department has yet to name.

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