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Six years before the Supreme Court decision, SFFA v. Princeton happened too

“Panorama of United States Supreme Court Building at Dusk” by Joe Ravi / CC BY-SA 3.0

In 2015, a 20-page report from the Department of Education (DOE) landed on the desk of University President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83. It was the conclusion of a seven-year investigation into the University’s admission practices by the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). 

The investigation found that the University did not violate federal law. But the document released to the DOE became the subject of a legal battle with Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA). Today, SFFA’s focus is on Harvard and the University of North Carolina (UNC). Cases against the two schools for violations similar to the one that Princeton was investigated for will be ruled on by the Supreme Court, likely in the next couple of days.


Ahead of the decisions, The Daily Princetonian looks back at how Princeton became one of just a handful litigants in SFFA’s history and breaks down how a Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruling on Title VI would impact the University.

Complaint and investigation leading up to SFFA dispute  

In 2006, Jian Li, a Princeton applicant, was rejected by the University. Li, now an alumnus of Yale University, had a perfect SAT score and a litany of extracurricular activities with a strong focus on volunteer work. Li filed a complaint to the DOE the very same year, alleging that Princeton practiced “unlawful discrimination” in the consideration of his application due to his Asian race. 

Li argued that the University violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on “the grounds of race, color or national origin” by any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. This rule extends to all educational institutions that accept any form of federal funding — a distinction that encompasses nearly all private universities, including Princeton.

So started a seven-year long investigation into the University. 

The OCR conducted its review focusing on four basic requirements for the use of race established as standards in Grutter v. Bollinger, the case that affirmed the “narrowly tailored” consideration of race in admissions decisions.


The four factors that determine a violation of Title VI are: grouping applicants by race and insulating them from competition with other applicants; evidence of quotas or racial balancing; using race as a determining factor for admission; and failing to explore other means of diversifying. 

In 2015, the investigation came to an end. The DOE’s report found that ultimately, there was insufficient evidence that the University’s admissions discriminated against Asian applicants, finding no violations of Title VI.

Title VI is at the center of the pending SCOTUS decision involving Harvard University’s long standing policy of race-conscious admissions, otherwise known as affirmative action. SFFA, a nonprofit whose mission is to end racial classifications and “preferences” in college admissions, has been involved in litigation against Harvard since 2014. The group’s other case against UNC was originally consolidated with the Harvard case, but the cases have since been separated by the Court.

Throughout the legal fight, SFFA has argued that affirmative action policies conducted by private universities are a violation of Title VI. Now, after two appeals to decisions made in lower courts, SFFA’s case will be decided by the high court.

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Princeton is not facing the court today. But when the investigation finished, SFFA engaged Princeton in a different legal battle: over the documents that the DOE considered.

Princeton v. SFFA

In the process of the DOE’s seven-year investigation (2008-2015), the University released thousands of admissions files to their OCR. These documents included admissions materials used for the Class of 2010, ranging from internal memorandums to applicant files, fifteen years of admissions data, and a random sample of over 1,000 applications from that period.

Four months after the investigation’s results were returned to President Eisgruber, SFFA submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in Jan. 2016 to the DOE for “all documents concerning the investigation of Princeton University.” 

By Dec. 2016, the DOE notified the University of SFFA’s request — and the University promptly objected. Yet, despite the objection, on March 1, 2017, the DOE informed Princeton that no exemptions to FOIA applied to SFFA’s request and, therefore, the DOE would proceed with handing over the requested documents to SFFA.

In response, Princeton filed a “reverse FOIA” lawsuit against the DOE (Trustees of Princeton University v. U.S. Department of Education, No. 17-cv-485) to prevent the disclosure of documents to SFFA. In the complaint, the University stated that the documents contained “sensitive applicant and admissions information.” 

Releasing that information to the public, Princeton reasoned, would be exempt from a FOIA request because admissions files belonged to a class of “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” and may discourage future applicants from applying over concerns of confidentiality. The University’s lawyers also asserted that admissions documents detailing admissions procedures are “trade secrets,” arguing that they should be marked “Confidential, Private, Personal and Proprietary – Exempt from Mandatory Disclosure Under FOIA.”

Princeton’s lawsuit paused the release of documents to SFFA. With two separate cases opened against the DOE, over the same set of documents, the University’s case was subsequently consolidated under SFFA’s original FOIA request (Students for Fair Admissions v. U.S. Department of Education, No. 16-cv-2154). With Princeton as the plaintiff — blocking the release of its admissions files — and the DOE and SFFA as defendants, months of cross-motions and status updates ensued. 

In 2017, founder and president of SFFA Edward Blum told the ‘Prince,’ the University’s reverse FOIA lawsuit “suggests that Princeton has something very revealing it wants to hide about its admissions policies.” 

Blum also noted, "[B]y withholding that transparency, a program such as Princeton’s should be considered flawed and thus, unconstitutional."

Finally, on Dec. 7, 2017, SFFA agreed to dismiss the case following negotiations between them and the University, facilitated by the DOE. It appears the files were not released.

Representatives from Princeton University and its legal team declined to comment on the negotiations.

In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ Blum commented, “I don’t recall all of the reasons for dropping the case, but it’s likely the timeline would have [been] an issue for our small organization.”

At the time, SFFA was embroiled in its current litigation against both Harvard and UNC — cases established a year before the Princeton challenge. Additionally, the same month its battle with Princeton ended, SFFA began a new challenge to the University of Texas (UT) Austin’s race-conscious admission at the state level, after SCOTUS upheld UT’s affirmative action policy in Edward Blum’s debut affirmative action case Fisher v. University of Texas (2013).

Harvard, once sued by SFFA, did not get to keep its admissions process a secret. The world got an inside look at the process during court hearings.

What does a Title VI violation mean for Princeton?

Princeton’s case may not have made it to the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court’s decision will have major impacts on Princeton nonetheless.

Title VI is the linchpin of SFFA’s argument in its Supreme Court case against Harvard. 

It’s stated in the opening line of their 2014 case: “This is an action brought under Title VI on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit Harvard from engaging in intentional discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity.”

While SCOTUS has yet to make its decision, the Massachusetts District Court and First Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the basis of SFFA’s lawsuit. In both cases, the judges found that Harvard did not violate the four counts of Title VI SFFA alleged: intentional discrimination against Asian Americans, racial balancing, using race as the determining factor in admissions decisions instead of a mere “plus” factor, and failing to explore other means of diversifying. Back in 2015, the DOE found Princeton University free of Title VI violations along those exact same lines.

In Aug. 2022, the University joined 13 other colleges in signing an amicus brief in support of Harvard and UNC in their disputes with SFFA. Yale University, among the 13 to join the brief, ended its own Title VI lawsuit against SFFA in 2021.

If SCOTUS finds affirmative action a violation of Title VI, the University will likely be forced to make major changes to its admissions policies to avoid legal trouble. Princeton would lose eligibility for federal funds for continuing race-conscious admissions.

While the University is a private institution, it receives massive grants from the federal government every year. To date in fiscal year (FY) 2023, the federal government awarded the university with $152.6 million. In FY 2022, the complete amount was $342.7 million, with an all-time award total of $4.2 billion. These sums go towards everything from tuition assistance for students in the form of federal Pell grants to funding research at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab for the Energy Department.

The two affirmative action cases, SFAA v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and SFAA v. University of North Carolina, will likely be decided by the end of the month.

Eden Teshome is head Podcast editor and a senior News writer for the ‘Prince.’

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