The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has broadened its investigation into a federal complaint filed in August 2006 by an applicant to the University who was denied admission. Jian Li claimed in the complaint that he was rejected because he is Asian.
The University announced Tuesday that it plans to provide information to aid the OCR in the investigation, which will examine the admissions procedures used to admit the Class of 2010. This significantly widens the range of the inquiry, which had previously focused solely on the decision-making process behind Li's rejection.
Despite receiving a perfect SAT score of 2400 and having several other educational achievements on his record, Li was denied admission at Harvard, MIT, Penn and Stanford in addition to his rejection from Princeton. Li has not filed similar complaints against these universities.
The OCR notified the University in January of its decision to proceed with the broader inquiry, called a "compliance review," Department of Education spokesman Jim Bradshaw said in an interview.
In a letter to members of the New Jersey Congressional delegation, the OCR's chief civil rights attorney, Timothy Blanchard, wrote that the review will investigate "whether the University discriminates against Asians, on the basis of race or national origin, in its admissions process, in violation of Title VI" of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Title VI prohibits racial discrimination in "any education program ... operated by a recipient of Federal financial assistance" from the Department of Education, Blanchard explained in the letter.
Both Bradshaw and University spokeswoman Cass Cliatt ’96 declined to comment on the nature of the information provided by the University to the OCR. Bradshaw said, however, that "the review expands the inquiry to include all Asian-American applicants and covers the original individual allegation."
University officials have denied any bias against Li in the admissions process. Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye said soon after the 2006 filing of the complaint that "the numbers don't indicate [discrimination]," and Cliatt maintained that "Princeton does not discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin, and our admission policy is in full compliance with Title VI of the federal law" in a statement released Tuesday evening.
In an e-mail to The Daily Princetonian, Li expressed satisfaction with the new direction the inquiry he initiated is taking. "The Office for Civil Right[s'] decision to broaden its investigation is good news for those who oppose the use of racial preferences in college admissions," Li said.
"I filed the complaint not for my own sake, but rather to hold Princeton accountable for racially discriminatory standards," he added. "Therefore, I had hoped from the start that the scope of the complaint would be much wider than my individual case."
Cliatt, on the other hand, said that the University does not believe there is "any merit" to Li's complaint.
"We're very confident about our admissions policy, and we welcome the opportunity to explain to [the] OCR how we do it," Cliatt said.
Though Cliatt said that "there is no factor that is assigned a fixed weight" in the admissions process, she acknowledged that "race is one component that factors into" the decision.
Bradshaw said that OCR opening the investigation "in no way implies that the OCR has made a determination on the merits of the complaint," and that the office will proceed in the investigation as "a neutral fact finder."
But Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, suggested that the OCR was downplaying the significance of the move.
"At the very least, the shift suggests that the government does not view the complaint as frivolous," Jaschik wrote in an analysis of the investigation. "OCR regularly shuts down complaint investigations ... and the agency has limited resources for compliance reviews. Compliance reviews ... tend to take place on issues that the department believes are important."
If the OCR finds that the University is not in compliance with the Civil Rights Act, the office will try to reach a settlement with the University before taking more serious measures. "In nearly all cases, we are able to reach settlement agreements with schools short of moving to enforcement," Bradshaw said. "However, if an institution refuses to comply with the civil rights laws, enforcement options do exist."
According to the OCR's case processing manual, "enforcement actions" can include termination of financial assistance to the university or referral to the Department of Justice for judicial proceedings.
After his rejection from Princeton, Li enrolled at Yale in fall 2006. That fall, Li told the ‘Prince' that he was "fine" at Yale, but he has since transferred to Harvard. Li declined to comment on his transfer or his reasons for not filing complaints against the other universities that rejected him.
In 2006, Rapelye said that Li's application was not as impressive as he alleges. "Many others had far better qualifications," she said, adding that "his outside activities were not all that outstanding."
Li said in the e-mail, though, that his placement on the University's waitlist before ultimately being rejected undermines Rapelye's claim.
"Princeton had initially waitlisted my application," Li said. "So if it were not for a yield which was higher than expected, the admissions office very well may have admitted a candidate whose ‘outside activities were not all that outstanding.' "