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Texas Tech Health Sciences Center agrees to stop using race in medical school admissions

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center has agreed to stop using race when considering applicants to its medical school, bowing to pressure as the Trump administration campaigns to curtail the use of affirmative action in education.

The action is the first of its kind under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and signals the approach her agency plans to take with other schools.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights has investigations underway into the use of race in admissions at Yale and Harvard universities. Those cases question whether Asian American applicants are being discriminated against in admissions. Separately, the Justice Department weighed in on behalf of plaintiffs challenging Harvard’s policies in court. And the civil rights office is investigating allegations that a magnet program in Montgomery County, Md., discriminates against Asian American students.

The Trump administration is targeting affirmative action policies at universities under a new initiative in the Justice Department. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Last year, DeVos revoked Obama-era guidance that offered schools a road map on how they could legally consider race in the interest of promoting diversity.

In the agreement, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center agreed to stop using race altogether in admissions, although the Supreme Court has allowed universities to use race in a limited fashion.

In a letter to the civil rights office, the university made clear it believes its policy was consistent with limits established by Supreme Court rulings. Still, the school said it was willing to sign the agreement proposed by the Trump administration “in an effort to resolve this matter and focus on educating future health care providers.”

Eric D. Bentley, general counsel for the Texas Tech University System, wrote that the school will see whether use of race-neutral practices allows it to achieve “diversity and educational goals,” and if not, will notify the government of its plan to change practices.

Health Sciences Center is made up of five schools, and the Office for Civil Rights investigated use of race at all of them. It concluded that only the medical school was currently using race as a factor in admissions.

The Education Department laid out its reasoning in a letter from an official who said the medical school may not meet the court’s standards for use of race in admissions.

The school “did not clearly document . . . whether its use of race-neutral alternative measures were sufficient, standing alone, to obtain the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity,” the official wrote.

Opponents of affirmative action are hopeful that the Supreme Court may revisit its stance on the practice at universities following the retirement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who provided a crucial swing vote the last time the matter was considered. The Harvard case could provide an opportunity for the court to reconsider its ruling.

The original investigation against Texas Tech Health Sciences Center, in Lubbock, was opened in 2005 in response to a complaint from Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which opposes affirmative action. The complaint was prompted by the university’s announcement that it planned to consider race in admissions, Clegg said.

Clegg welcomed the agreement and argued that it will put pressure on other schools to stop using race in admissions decisions.

“It shows again that the Trump administration is serious about enforcing the civil rights laws so that they forbid discrimination against all racial and ethnic groups, and will not turn a blind eye toward politically correct racial discrimination in the way the Obama administration did,” he said.

Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil rights group, said she was dismayed that the administration’s stance against affirmative action appeared to be having an impact.

“When does it end? Not only is this administration demonstrably hostile toward diversity and inclusion in our higher-education institutions, but now it is also pressuring schools to adopt its own anti-civil-rights agenda into their admissions policies,” she said.

Thomas A. Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said it was disturbing the Trump administration proposed that the university eliminate race considerations in admissions when the law allows their limited use.

“The department is supposed to enforce the law, not go beyond it,” he said.

The voluntary agreement with the university was signed in February. The school agreed to inform staff of the change by March 1 and said it would remove material referencing race and national origin as admission factors by September.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that universities may consider race in admission decisions to create a diverse class but said the programs must be narrowly tailored to pass judicial scrutiny.

The agreement with Texas Tech Health Sciences Center was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

In response to Clegg’s complaint, the government also investigated admissions practices at Texas Tech University. Both entities are part of the Texas Tech University System. The Office for Civil Rights concluded in November that the school was no longer considering race in its admissions decisions and dismissed that complaint.