The Justice Department sued Yale University on Thursday, accusing the school of discriminating against Asian and White applicants in violation of federal civil rights law.

In the complaint filed in federal district court, the department alleged that the Ivy League university has for decades favored certain applicants based on their race, rather than using other means to achieve diversity in its student population.

“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,” Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said in a statement. “To do otherwise is to permit our institutions to foster stereotypes, bitterness, and division.”

Yale President Peter Salovey wrote in a statement to campus Thursday evening, “I want to be clear: Yale does not discriminate against applicants of any race or ethnicity. 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. We look forward to defending these policies in court.”

A higher education association called the lawsuit “shocking and disheartening” and politically motivated, coming just a few weeks before the election.

The Trump administration has repeatedly challenged the use of race in admissions, particularly at the country’s most selective universities. The issue has long been a lightning rod, with proponents touting the educational benefits of diversity and critics saying the practice gives an unfair advantage to some applicants solely based on the color of their skin.

“It is profoundly disturbing that the Department of Justice has launched such an unprecedented judicial attack on one of the nation’s great universities — and by extension all of American higher education,” Ted Mitchell, the president of the American Council on Education, said in a statement Thursday. “With its action today, the Justice Department has unapologetically aligned with the repeated, failed attempts by misguided advocacy groups to prevent colleges and universities from considering race as one factor in a holistic admissions review” despite four decades of U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

But Mike Gonzalez, a fellow with the Heritage Foundation, argued the issue is not settled legally and that he supports the Justice Department’s case. “Fundamentally, they should not use race,” in admissions decision, he said.

Yale’s admissions process is not fundamentally different from that of many other institutions, said Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel at the American Council on Education. He was general counsel at Princeton University when the Education Department investigated its admissions practices, ultimately concluding they were in keeping with Supreme Court mandates, he said.

“But if you sue Yale in October 2020 it catches peoples’ attention and it gets headlines,” McDonough said.

The lawsuit would have a chilling effect, he said, on other university’s admissions practices.

“It is hard not to view this litigation as part of a carefully coordinated campaign with other groups mounting an assault on affirmative action at other major universities,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, wrote in an email. “Race-conscious admissions is both lawful and indispensable for ensuring institutions are open and available to students from all walks of life, including students of color. We will fight the Justice Department’s ill-conceived effort to tear down racial diversity.”

The Supreme Court has upheld the practice of race-conscious admissions, with limits, to achieve colleges’ aim to create a diverse class of students.

But the Justice Department’s complaint alleges that Yale’s use of race in admissions is not limited, but is the determining factor for hundreds of applicants each year. Asian Americans and Whites have only one-eighth to one-fourth of the likelihood of admission as African American applicants with comparable academic credentials, the department claims.

The suit was brought to enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires institutions that receive federal dollars to comply. “Yale’s race discrimination includes imposing undue and unlawful penalties on racially-disfavored applicants, including in particular most Asian, and White applicants,” the lawsuit, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, alleges.

In August, the Justice Department announced that a two-year investigation into Yale’s admissions had concluded that the school gave too much weight to race in its consideration of applicants. The suit filed Thursday alleges the university favors some applicants, including those who identify as Black, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islander and some Asian subgroups such as Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian and Vietnamese. Other Asian students, and White students, are penalized, according to the complaint.

At the time, Yale officials responded that the university’s practices “absolutely comply with decades of Supreme Court precedent.”

The Justice Department said the private university in Connecticut refused its demand to either stop using race as a factor in admissions or propose changes to its admissions process, so it filed suit.

But Salovey countered that the university had been providing information for weeks to counter the claims and show that “this allegation is based on inaccurate statistics and unfounded conclusions, such as DOJ’s claim that the proportion of various racial groups admitted to Yale has remained stable for many years. In fact, in the last two decades, the percentage of admitted applicants fluctuated significantly for all groups.”

Yale is extraordinarily selective, offering admission to 2,200 of its more than 35,000 applicants in 2018-2019.

Salovey noted that Yale has too many applicants with excellent academic qualifications to only use grades and test scores as determinants and that the school seeks a more complete picture of each applicant. “Our admissions process considers as many aspects as possible of an applicant’s life experiences and accomplishments,” he said. “That does include race and ethnicity, but only as one element in a multistage examination of the entire application file, which takes into account test scores, grades, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, military service and many other factors.”

“We take this approach because we know that exposure to a diverse student body improves students’ critical thinking, problem-solving and leadership skills and prepares them to thrive in a complex, dynamic world,” he added.

The Justice Department has also cast a critical eye on the use of race at another top university, filing briefs supporting the plaintiff in a lawsuit against Harvard University that accuses the Massachusetts school of discriminating against Asian American applicants.

Last year, a federal judge rejected the plaintiff’s claims, a decision seen as a strong endorsement of the status quo in admissions. The plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions, has appealed the ruling.