MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The Trump administration brought the old debate over affirmative action to the fore today. It rescinded Obama-era guidelines for colleges about how they could consider race in their admissions decisions as a way to boost diversity. The Trump administration says those guidelines went too far. Michelle Hackman is a national education policy reporter for The Wall Street Journal. She broke this story, and she joins me now. Hey, Michelle.
MICHELLE HACKMAN: Hey, good to be here.
KELLY: So what exactly is the Trump administration saying? Can colleges still consider race in their admissions decisions?
HACKMAN: Yes. So legally, the Supreme Court said in 2016 that colleges can use race as long as they sort of exhaust all other avenues and also use it as narrowly as they possibly can. Now, the Trump administration is saying that the Obama administration put out policies that essentially encouraged colleges to do that to the extent that they could under the law, and the Trump Administration found that inappropriate.
KELLY: So what exactly are they saying colleges could or should do?
HACKMAN: They are encouraging schools to look at race-neutral options, sometimes called race-blind options - so using other tools like looking at someone's income to encourage diversity at schools.
KELLY: OK. And so these are - we should mention again these are guidelines. This is not hard, binding rules that colleges immediately have to put into effect.
HACKMAN: That's right, although they do sort of - I mean, rescinding these guidelines does show the Trump administration's point of view. You know, even if it's not binding law, the Trump - the way that they pursue investigations or lawsuits in the future could show that they are leaning toward, you know, the use of race being very narrowly tailored.
KELLY: Right. I wanted to ask you because this move comes as a lawsuit against Harvard is unfolding in federal court, a lawsuit that alleges Harvard intentionally discriminates against Asian Americans by limiting the number of Asian students who they admit. Harvard denies that. But I wonder; are these two moves connected in some way?
HACKMAN: So that - we believe so. The Trump administration has submitted something called a statement of interest in the Harvard lawsuit. That's essentially saying, hey, we're the government; we have a stake in how this is decided. And there's another deadline coming up in the Harvard case at the end of the month. So we believe, you know, if they want to file something that sort of goes against what these Obama guidelines say, that it would be in their interest to get rid of them.
KELLY: Interesting. What kind of reaction are you hearing from colleges and universities to this move today?
HACKMAN: Well, colleges tend not to like (laughter) being told what to do or what not to do by the federal government. They feel like, you know, they're being told that they can't use this tool in their arsenal to make their classes more diverse, so they're definitely not happy.
KELLY: One last thing to ask you about, another thing unfolding in parallel, which is this. At the Supreme Court of course Justice Kennedy is retiring later this month. He has been a key swing vote on affirmative action. What's going to be the impact of his leaving, and is that a factor at all in the timing here?
HACKMAN: Well, absolutely I think so. I mean, Justice Kennedy was the fifth vote in favor of saying that affirmative action was legal as recently as 2016. And the administration may be looking to find a justice that has a different viewpoint. I mean, the other thing I'll say is that this Harvard case seems clearly aimed to reach the Supreme Court. So, you know, if the Trump administration has its justice in place by then, they could significantly impact policy on the way race is used in college admissions.
KELLY: Sounds like you've got a quite interesting beat on your hands. Michelle Hackman...
KELLY: ...At The Wall Street Journal, thanks so much.
HACKMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.