American higher education and civil-rights groups vowed to fight any efforts to limit affirmative-action policies in universities and colleges a day after reports said the U.S. Department of Justice was seeking to investigate and possibly sue institutions over some aspects of the practice.
"Affirmative action is rooted in our nation's fundamental commitment to equality … and we will bring the full force of the law if this Justice Department attempts to resegregate our institutions of higher learning," the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said in a statement.
The group is one of many that came out swinging at the Trump administration's perceived assault on higher education. If the DOJ does take action, it will be the latest battle in a simmering war between higher education institutions and the federal government, adding to tensions caused by immigration restrictions, threats to cut funding to historically black colleges and cuts to science research.
It is not clear what type of investigation the DOJ may undertake, or if it would restrict itself to looking at a specific complaint from a consortium of 64 Asian-American groups, as it said in a statement late on Wednesday.
Two lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are also currently making their way through federal court alleging the schools discriminate against Asian-American applicants by denying them admission in spite of their qualifications. The suit was organized by a group calling itself Students for Fair Admission whose president is behind many of the suits that were eventually heard by the Supreme Court.
Taking on affirmative action is not likely to end well for the DOJ, critics argue. The Supreme Court has repeatedly found policies that consider students' race in making admission offers to be constitutional. And persistent gaps between the percentage of white and black students who enroll in college make such approaches essential, they argue.
"Universities and colleges across the country feel that expanding opportunity, promoting diversity and showing that the university is open to people from different backgrounds is crucial to the learning environment," said Rachel Kleinman, the senior counsel for the NAACP Fund.
Others said that diversity translates directly to the classroom experience.
"When I have a class that is diverse in many ways, it makes for a rich discussion and we have multiple ways of looking at things. It's a better class," said Risa Lieberwitz, general counsel for the American Association of University Professors, a faculty group that has advocated for the importance of affirmative action through four decades of Supreme Court cases.
The AAUP also released a statement saying it would "vigorously defend the value of diversity."
In its last decision on the subject, in June, 2016, the Supreme Court said affirmative action policies are acceptable when they are one part of a package of measures aimed at creating a diverse campus, and when they meet a "compelling" government goal, such as defeating stereotypes or increasing cross-cultural understanding.
Advocates say much of the public has a mistaken impression that affirmative action requires crude quotas. But that has not been the case since four decades ago when the Supreme Court ruled against quotas in the landmark Bakke case.
"When I think of affirmative action, I don't think of giving a place to a less able person. To my view, affirmative action means that in the admission process you take into account the life a person has lived," said Robert Birgeneau, a former chancellor of the University of Berkeley and former president of the University of Toronto.
Dr. Birgeneau has strongly supported efforts to overturn a California state measure that, in 1996, barred universities and other public employers from considering sex, race or ethnicity in making hiring or admission decisions. He said Berkeley's experience shows why affirmative action is so important to black or Chicano students.
"There is no evidence that people from underprivileged backgrounds are not ready for college," he said. "When students from underprivileged groups come to Berkeley they achieve. People who may have gone to poorer high schools and did not score as well [on SATs] as those from elite schools end up by their fourth year doing just as well, and graduating at the same rate."