Watch CBS News

Former Civil Rights Division head Vanita Gupta calls DOJ's Harvard probe "unprecedented"

DOJ Harvard probe "unprecedented"
Former DOJ Civil Rights head calls Harvard probe "unprecedented" 03:23

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is not answering questions about a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation at Harvard University. CBS News learned earlier this month the DOJ is investigating the role of race in the admission process, to see if Asian-American applicants are held to a higher standard.

"The Justice Department's investigation is unprecedented," said Vanita Gupta, who led the department's Civil Rights Division under President Obama. She is now president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "The Justice Department has never been a party in these cases directly investigating an institution."

Vanita Gupta CBS News

The Trump Justice Department hasn't opened many civil rights investigations, but it has launched this probe into affirmative action practices at Harvard while at the same time halting most other discrimination investigations, reports CBS News justice reporter Paula Reid.

Sessions has been critical of affirmative action, and in 2015, then-candidate Trump suggested it might be time to end the practice.   

"I'm fine with it. We have it. It's there. But it's coming to a time when maybe we don't need it," Mr. Trump told Fox News in October 2015.

Reid tried to ask Sessions about the Harvard investigation at a news conference on Wednesday, but his communications team repeatedly blocked the questions.

"Mr. Attorney General, your Civil Rights department, for the most part, has not done many investigations into systemic racial discrimination, but you are currently investigating—" Reid started before a spokesperson interrupted her.

"This is the attorney general of the United States. I understand you are doing your job, but I am doing mine, too," Reid continued. "Your Civil Rights Division is investigating Harvard University for possible civil rights violations related to affirmative action, possibly discriminating against Asian-Americans and white students. Why is this a priority for your Justice Department?"

"We'll take an on-topic question," the spokesperson said.

"Why can't he answer that though, I mean?" Reid asked.

"This is a conversation about our opioid policy," the spokesperson replied.

"He was able to ask about Alabama, he was able to ask about sanctuary cities. Why can't I ask about this?" Reid responded. 

CBS News' Paula Reid's testy exchange at the DOJ 00:39

Letters obtained by CBS News show the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has concluded that Harvard is "out of compliance" with the law. They also say that Harvard has refused to hand over documents and has challenged the department's authority to investigate.

Sixty-five percent of Americans believe race should not be used in admissions decisions.

"Despite a lot of these programs, blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented in colleges and universities today even more so than they were in 1980," Gupta said.

The Supreme Court has upheld use of race as a factor in college admissions as recently as 2016.

"What is the legal argument that the Justice Department is trying to pursue with this investigation?" Reid asked Gupta.

"The Justice Department clearly seems to be trying to tee up another case for the Supreme Court. It looks like right now that they are looking for a sympathetic, attractive group of plaintiffs -- here it's Asian-Americans students who've been denied admission at Harvard -- and to try to drive a wedge among communities of color by kind of pitting Asian-Americans against African-American and Hispanic students," Gupta said.

Harvard said it continues to engage with the Justice Department to come up with a way to provide the information the government wants while also protecting student privacy. The Justice Department has given Harvard until Friday to cooperate in the investigation or it could file a lawsuit.

Princeton's president defends race-conscious approach to admissions 03:15
View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.