* Correction appended.
The Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center has agreed to stop considering race in its admissions decisions, part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education that may be a bellwether for how the agency approaches colleges' affirmative action practices going forward.
The voluntary agreement, entered into in February, concludes a 14-year investigation into the Lubbock-based school, which operates independently of Texas Tech University within the Texas Tech University System. The center's programs include pharmacy, nursing and medical schools, the last of which was the focus of the investigation.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights initiated the case in 2005, after two landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases found universities could use race as a factor in their admissions processes under certain circumstances.
The Tech System’s governing board announced around that time that the four-school system would begin considering race and ethnicity as part of a holistic review of its applicants. The decision prompted Roger Clegg, from the anti-affirmative action group Center for Equal Opportunity, to file a complaint.
In a February 2019 letter sent to the Education Department, a Tech System official said the federal investigation had been triggered by a complainant who never tried to gain entrance to the medical school and would not have been “impacted in any way” by its admissions process.
The Tech official, Vice Chancellor and General Counsel Eric Bentley, said in his letter that the system believes it can show its admissions process complies with the standard laid out in a recent Supreme Court case. But Tech officials, he wrote, were "willing to sign the Resolution Agreement in an effort to resolve this matter and focus on educating future health care providers.”
Under the terms of the agreement, the Health Sciences Center is required to issue a memorandum instructing medical school staff to no longer consider applicants’ race or national origin in its admissions process. The college will also need to revise its catalogs and website to strike mention of race and national origin from factors in admissions.
A Tech official confirmed the memorandum has been sent and that the school opted to end the use of race in admissions entirely. In a letter sent to Clegg, the Education Department had faulted the school for not conducting periodic reviews of its race-based admissions decisions to determine if student-body diversity could be maintained using alternate means.
Still, Bentley, the Tech official, wrote that the medical school is “committed to exploring race-neutral alternatives to enhancing diversity,” and would monitor whether they yielded results that meet the school’s "diversity and educational goals.”
“If a determination is made in the future that using race as a factor in admissions is necessary to achieve this compelling interest,” he wrote, the system will notify the Education Department, in accordance with the agreement.
The resolution, which is not a concession of wrongdoing, comes as the Education Department has opened investigations into the admissions policies in place at Yale and Harvard universities. Under Secretary Betsy DeVos, the agency has appeared to urge race-neutral admissions policies and has rescinded Obama-era guidance encouraging the use of affirmative action in higher education institutions.
The complaint was filed against every school within the Health Sciences Center, but the medical school is the only one to have recently considered race or national origin in admissions decisions. The pharmacy school, within the Center, used race as a factor in admissions between 2005 and 2009, and the system’s flagship campus, Texas Tech University, stopped considering it in 2013.
Clegg, the initial complainant, said the agreement reflects a sea-change in how the Education Department has approached affirmative action under the stewardship of different leaders.
"Today is another instance where the Trump Administration has made it clear that, unlike the Obama Administration, it's going to enforce the civil rights laws in a way that protects all Americans,” he said. “As America becomes increasingly multiethnic and multiracial, it becomes more and more untenable for the government to encourage different Americans to be treated differently based on their skin color and what country their ancestors came from.”
"I think schools are being put on notice that if they insist on continuing to treat students differently,” he said, "they better be able to show that they have met the strict requirements that the Supreme Court has set out.”
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Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the timing of a Supreme Court case related to affirmative action.