The Trump administration has rescinded Obama-era guidance encouraging colleges to take a student's race into account to promote diversity in admissions, as part of a broader purge of guidelines issued by prior administrations.
In total, Sessions announced the rescission of 24 guidance documents, nearly all from the Obama era, which advised on issues such as national origin discrimination, the rights of refugees to work and the detention of juveniles in adult jail facilities.
"The American people deserve to have their voices heard and a government that is accountable to them. When issuing regulations, federal agencies must abide by constitutional principles and follow the rules set forth by Congress and the president", he said. "That's wrong, and it's not good government".
Officials at several universities in Eastern Washington said Tuesday they had not had an opportunity to review details of the administration's guidance.
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The move comes as the Justice Department is investigating whether Harvard University is illegally discriminating against Asian-American students by holding them to a higher standard in its admissions process. Though many have expressed their disappointment over the move, few are surprised, as the administration has been signaling its intentions to dismantle the policies for months.Last year, the administration hinted that the rules could soon be cut when it launched a search for lawyers who were interested in working for an unnamed project on "investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions".
Anurima Bargava, who led civil rights enforcement in schools for the Justice Department during Obama's presidency, disagreed with that assessment, saying the documents simply offered guidelines to schools looking to continue using affirmative action legally.
Still, the rescinding of the Obama guidelines could have a chilling effect on some universities as they consider the makeup of incoming freshman classes, advocates of affirmative action said.
"The executive branch can not circumvent Congress or the courts by creating guidance that goes beyond the law and-in some instances-stays on the books for decades", Justice Department spokesperson Devin O'Malley told CNN in a statement.
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Tuesday's reversal does not affect what a school decides to do on its own within the confines of current Supreme Court precedent, but civil rights groups swiftly reacted with disappointment.
Not all colleges use race in admissions.
"As the Supreme Court has recognized", one of the documents states, "diversity has benefits for all students, and today's students must be prepared to succeed in a diverse society and an increasingly global workforce".
The Cato Institute's Shapiro maintained that there are other ways besides affirmative action to create a more diverse student body.
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Six pieces of guidance related to affirmative action issued between 2011 and 2016 were among 24 nullified on Tuesday by attorney general Jeff Sessions, who said they were "unnecessary, outdated, inconsistent with existing law, or otherwise improper". The opinion, written by retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, granted affirmative action policies a narrow victory by permitting race to be among the factors considered in the college admission process.