Legal

On Affirmative Action, Candice Jackson Said Civil-Rights Office Would Not ‘Push a Social Agenda’

August 02, 2017

Candice Jackson (center), acting assistant secretary at the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, told a meeting of college lawyers this summer that she didn’t “foresee there being any new regulation or policy on the topic of racial preferences” in admissions.

This summer, officials from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights briefly discussed where they stood on admissions policies that consider race. While both officials showed some interest in the topic, neither indicated a broad re-interpretation of how the government would consider the issue.

Candice E. Jackson, acting assistant secretary at the Office for Civil Rights, told a meeting of college lawyers that she didn’t “foresee there being any new regulation or policy on the topic of racial preferences” in admissions.

Thomas E. Wheeler, at the time serving as acting assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, also spoke to the lawyers, and said he could not comment on any current or possible future investigations. The agency was “acutely aware” of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Asian-American students questioning the admissions process at Harvard University, he said.

The two officials spoke at the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Attorneys, which took place in Chicago in late June. Their remarks came about a month before The New York Times reported this week that the Trump administration would focus on investigating colleges over their admissions policies, with some interpreting that the government would focus on alleged race-based discrimination against white applicants.

The Supreme Court’s latest ruling allowing the use of race in admissions — involving the University of Texas at Austin — would guide her agency’s decisions about whether and how to investigate colleges, said Ms. Jackson. “I do potentially see clarifying that our enforcement approach takes current precedent at face value and will apply it and will treat each situation on its merits,” Ms. Jackson told the conference attendees during her presentation. “If it’s discriminatory under current case law, then it’s discriminatory,” she added.

If a college can show a compelling interest for using race as one factor in its admissions process and has a “narrowly-tailored” policy to fulfill that interest, “then compliance with precedent is our standard,” she said.

“We’re not going to weigh in from a policy perspective on promoting or discouraging what’s allowed by the Supreme Court,” she said.

Ms. Jackson, who once wrote about being discriminated against as a white student at Stanford, also told the lawyers that affirmative action is part of a broader social debate, not something her agency can decide in interpreting the law.

“For me, it comes back to viewing our agency as not having the goal of helping one side of society win a social debate over the other — that’s left to the democratic process,” she said. “We, as an agency, are going to be looking to what is the law and how do we reasonably interpret and apply it, not trying to push one side of a social agenda forward or backward on any particular issue.”

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.