Stepping Up the Pace at the Office for Civil Rights

WASHINGTON—The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has been revamping its operations to enforce laws against discrimination more consistently and is in the process of reviewing its approach to complaints of anti-Semitism and its guidance to colleges on race-conscious admission policies and gender equity in athletics, the office’s chief, Russlynn H. Ali, told The Chronicle on Wednesday.

In a wide-ranging interview, Ms. Ali, who took office as assistant secretary for civil rights last May, also said her office has been ramping up its efforts to advise educational institutions, and suggested that it expects to be handling a larger volume of discrimination complaints and approaching some controversies differently than it had under the Bush administration.

“We are hearing from folks across the country that say things like, ‘We didn’t file [complaints] before because we did not think you would do anything or be responsive, and now we have some faith that you will,” Ms. Ali said. Her office “needs to stretch” to be able to handle the additional workload without substantially more resources, she said, but she is confident that it has the full support of President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “which goes far.”

Ms. Ali declined to comment on several civil-rights investigations of colleges begun under the Bush administration, citing her office’s longstanding policy of not discussing matters that are pending.

Ms. Ali did say, however, that her office will soon issue new guidance on a controversial policy that has allowed colleges to use the results of surveys of students’ interest in sports to show compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination at institutions that receive federal funds.

Ms. Ali also said her office is “reviewing the previous administration’s policies” dealing with race-conscious admissions policies. And, she said, she is considering the difficult legal questions posed by pleas by Jewish organizations that her office investigate complaints of anti-Semitism under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of color, race, and national origin, but not religion.

“I lose sleep over this one,” she said.

Lingering Complaints
Among the open cases that Ms. Ali inherited upon taking office are investigations of bias against Asian-American students by Princeton University, allegations that the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia gave too much weight to applicants’ race, and challenges to the legality of programs for minority students at Pepperdine University, the University of Missouri, the University of Wisconsin system, and several campuses of the City University of New York.

Ms. Ali would not say how she was approaching those matters, and officials of several of the colleges involved have said they have yet to receive any sort of determination from her office.

But the Obama administration’s intent to be much more supportive of race-conscious admissions than the Bush administration became clear last month, when top lawyers from the Education and Justice Departments joined in submitting a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the University of Texas at Austin in a lawsuit pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The brief reinforces the university’s defense of its race-conscious admission policies.

Whereas the Bush administration had sided against the University of Michigan in a Supreme Court case challenging that institution’s consideration of applicants’ race, the brief the Obama administration lawyers filed last month strongly endorsed Texas’s argument that only race-conscious admissions policies would provide it with sufficient levels of diversity to reap the educational benefits it sought.

“In view of the importance of diversity in educational institutions,” the brief said, “the United States, through the Departments of Education and Justice, supports the efforts of school systems and postsecondary educational institutions that wish to develop admission polices that endeavor to achieve the educational benefits of diversity” in accordance with the Supreme Court ruling upholding Michigan’s consideration of race.

Guidance ‘Soon’ on Title IX
On the subject of gender equity, for several years, colleges received little, if any, direction from the office regarding Title IX and college sports. It was a silence President Obama noted while on the campaign trail: “Compliance reviews have dropped, the focus of the reviews has narrowed, and the agency has taken a lax approach to enforcement,” he told USA Today in the spring of 2008.

That silence is about to end. Ms. Ali said the office will provide guidance “soon” on a hotly debated policy clarification from 2005. The provision, viewed by gender-equity advocates as a setback that weakens the intent of the law, allows colleges to demonstrate compliance with a key prong of Title IX by using an electronic survey to gauge female students’ interest in playing sports. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent federal advisory panel, endorsed the mechanism this month as the best way for colleges to comply with a key prong of Title IX. But in its five years on the books, the tactic has failed to gain traction on campuses.

Colleges can also expect to receive greater technical assistance when it comes to complying with Title IX, Ms. Ali said. And between now and September, the office will announce three investigations of university athletics programs.

A Reinvigorated Office
In a speech given in Selma, Ala., last month, Secretary Duncan said the Office for Civil Rights “has not been as vigilant as it should have been” over the past decade in confronting discrimination involving race, gender, and physical disability. He announced plans to open “compliance review” investigations at more than 30 school districts nationwide and at six colleges, which the Education Department has yet to name.

On Wednesday, Ms. Ali declined to draw contrasts between herself and her predecessor, Stephanie J. Monroe, who headed up the office for the last three years of the Bush administration, after five years in which it lacked a leader appointed on more than a temporary basis. For her part, Ms. Monroe has disputed any suggestion that the office had been lax about enforcing civil-rights laws under her watch.

Ms. Ali did suggest, however, that the change in administrations has reinvigorated her office. When she began her job, she said, “what we found [were] some tireless civil-rights pioneers that are hungry and eager, in their words, ‘to do civil rights again.'”

She said her office plans over the next several months to issue a series of “Dear colleague” letters to colleges offering them guidance on issues related to Title VI and Title IX. It also plans to routinely publicize its letters of findings, both to give Americans a sense of what it is doing and to help ensure consistency in how its 12 regional offices interpret the law.