The Justice Department sued Yale University on Thursday on the grounds that the prestigious university discriminated against white and Asian-American applicants during its rigorous admission process.
A multiyear investigation, the Justice Department said, found that white and Asian-American applicants were one-eighth to one-fourth as likely to be admitted as African-American applicants with the same academic credentials.
“Illegal race discrimination by colleges and universities must end,” Assistant Attorney General Eric S. Dreiband said in a news release about the lawsuit. He added: “All persons who apply for admission to colleges and universities should expect and know that they will be judged by their character, talents, and achievements and not the color of their skin. To do otherwise is to permit our institutions to foster stereotypes, bitterness, and division.”
According to the Justice Department, the discriminatory practices constitute a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says that programs receiving taxpayer funding cannot discriminate.
Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, said in a statement on Thursday that the Justice Department’s allegation of racial discrimination was based on “inaccurate statistics and unfounded conclusions,” several of which the university tried to correct before the department filed suit.
“I want to be clear: Yale does not discriminate against applicants of any race or ethnicity,” Mr. Salovey said. “Our admissions practices are completely fair and lawful. Yale’s admissions policies will not change as a result of the filing of this baseless lawsuit.”
Mr. Salovey acknowledged that the university did consider many aspects of a candidate’s life, including race and ethnicity, but only as one element in a thorough examination of academic achievement, extracurricular activities, military service and more.
In August, the Justice Department accused Yale of violating federal civil rights law, in an escalation of the Trump administration’s moves against race-based admissions policies at elite universities. The department demanded that the university stop considering race or national origin in its next admissions cycle or face a federal lawsuit.
The charge, coming after a two-year investigation of a complaint by a coalition of Asian-American organizations, was the administration’s second confrontation with an Ivy League school over admissions policies. Two years ago, the Justice Department publicly backed Asian-American students who accused Harvard in a lawsuit of systematically discriminating against them; a federal judge ruled in Harvard’s favor last year, but the federal government continues to support the plaintiffs.
Like Harvard, Yale denied that its policies were discriminatory, saying its admissions process adheres to both federal law and Supreme Court rulings that have generally supported affirmative action. The Justice Department lacks the authority to force Yale to change its policies, requiring the lawsuit to attempt to enforce its ruling.
Legal experts saw the department’s finding against Yale as an extension of conservative legal efforts to end race-based college admissions policies, a battle that is expected to eventually reach a Supreme Court that leans more conservative after two appointments by President Trump, with confirmation hearings for his third nominee set to begin next week.
Ted Mitchell, the president of the American Council on Education, called the Justice Department’s lawsuit “shocking and disheartening,” and said it contradicted decades of Supreme Court precedent that allowed for holistic admission processes.
“Nothing less than the autonomy of our nation’s higher education institutions and their crucial role as engines of social and economic mobility is at stake,” Mr. Mitchell said.
Several challenges to admissions practices, including at Harvard, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin, have been orchestrated by Students for Fair Admissions, a group that opposes affirmative action, and are making their way through the federal courts.
Will Wright contributed reporting.