Maine college and university officials are defending their commitment to diversity in response to reports that the Trump administration plans to investigate, and possibly sue, educational institutions over admissions policies that federal officials view as discriminating against white applicants.

College officials point to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows race to be considered as a factor in admissions decisions.

The administration’s efforts first were described this week by The New York Times, citing an internal Department of Justice document, revealing that the department’s civil rights division is seeking lawyers interested in working on “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.”

The document didn’t specify which races are being discriminated against, but the Times and The Washington Post both framed the new effort as targeting discrimination against white people. The department later said the document referred to a single complaint involving Asian-American students in a college admissions affirmative action case.

In Maine, Colby, Bates and Bowdoin colleges have race-based admissions policies, while the University of Maine System does not.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that schools cannot use quotas or points but race can be one factor in admissions decisions.

In 2012, Colby, Bates and Bowdoin signed on to a brief supporting the University of Texas’ use of race-conscious admissions as part of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, an affirmative action case. Thirty-seven highly selective liberal arts colleges and universities signed the brief, arguing that they could not create sufficiently inclusive and vibrant environments through race-neutral admissions.

The court ruled 4-3 last year that the Texas university’s race-conscious program could be upheld, signaling that such an affirmative action effort is constitutional.

BOWDOIN COLLEGE

Doug Cook, director of news and media relations for Bowdoin, said college officials saw the New York Times story but have no firsthand knowledge of any change in government policy. Asked if any white applicant has complained about being discriminated against, he said the college in Brunswick has not been challenged on that issue. He also said Bowdoin has no specific diversity goal.

“So we’re not going to speculate about any impact on what is an effective and well-established holistic approach that considers many factors for admission to Bowdoin,” Cook said.

One-third of Bowdoin students identify as nonwhite, according to statistics listed on the college website. Of 1,806 students at Bowdoin, 110 are either aliens or their ethnicity is unknown. Of the remaining 1,696 students, 1,159 identify as white, or 68 percent, and 537 identify as nonwhite, or 31 percent.

UMAINE SYSTEM

The seven campuses in the UMaine System do not consider race or gender in admissions, said spokesman Dan Demeritt. But campuses do recruit and run marketing campaigns designed to reach underrepresented groups.

“We are engaged and visible where we are going to be noticed by new Mainers,” Demeritt said, referring to immigrants who have settled in Maine. “But it’s not an admissions tool. There are no preferences in admissions that would advantage anyone to the disadvantage of anyone else.”

Systemwide, total enrollment was 29,465 in the fall of 2016, with 75.6 percent of students white, 2.2 percent black, 2.2 percent Hispanic/Latino, 1.1 percent American Indian/Alaskan, 2.6 percent nonresident alien, 3.2 percent two or more races, and 12.4 percent unspecified.

Robert Dana, vice president for student life at the University of Maine in Orono, said the public university is committed to making students from all ethnic, racial, religious and other backgrounds feel welcome despite any specific policies. That commitment to diversity has not reduced the number of programs available to white students, he said.

A 2015 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 95 percent of single-race Maine residents were white, 1.1 percent were black, 1.5 percent were Hispanic, 1.5 percent were Asian, and 1.7 percent were American Indian.

Dana said, “We know that people from diverse backgrounds help us think more broadly and expose us to different cultural standards that help us see the world differently.”

Despite not considering race in admissions, UMaine makes an effort to diversify its student body. A statement on its website affirms a commitment to diversity in the staff and student body and says one of its goals is to “increase the percentage of undergraduate and graduate students of color.”

From 2012 to 2016, the number of black and Hispanic students on the Orono campus increased by, respectively, 30 and 37.5 percent, according to an enrollment report. But each group still accounted for just 2 percent of the student body last year, while white students accounted for about 76 percent, Asian students for 1 percent and American Indian students for 1 percent.

USM

At the University of Southern Maine, targeted recruitment includes hosting parents’ nights at high schools with large numbers of underrepresented groups or recruiting at a Hispanic college fair, but there is no admissions advantage, said spokesman Bob Stein.

“We don’t offer anything special to these populations, but we go above and beyond to communicate what we offer here to them,” he said.

The school also has a welcoming environment, he said, noting that the new tagline for the school is “the University of Everyone” and that USM has a multicultural center, programs to help disadvantaged students, and prayer rooms.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from,” he said. “You are welcome and supported here and you will definitely see people just like you on our campuses.”

According to federal data for the fall of 2015, the latest available, 76 percent of USM students were white, 3 percent were black, 2 percent were Hispanic, 2 percent were Asian, 2 percent were two or more races, and race or ethnicity was unknown for 13 percent of students.

Stein said that attracting a diverse student body is a natural outcome of having campuses in Portland and Lewiston-Auburn, which have diverse populations.

“USM is pretty fortunate to be in the most diverse community in Maine, so that gives us a real advantage,” Stein said. “People in diverse, underrepresented communities know us, especially those folks that aren’t going to move, adults who want to stay local.”

THOMAS COLLEGE

The presumption is that a diverse student body offers educational benefits to students and the broader community they serve when they graduate, said Thomas Edwards, provost of Thomas College in Waterville, which does not consider race in its admissions process.

“It is not clear that these practices in place in many institutions rise to the level of ‘intentional race-based discrimination,'” Edwards said, referring to the Department of Justice document. “That language would certainly signal a shift in emphasis and direction from a previous administration.”

Edwards said Thomas College invites applications “without regard to race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, disability or age,” and the college adopted a diversity statement that says it is “committed to promoting a diverse community in an atmosphere of mutual respect.”

Edwards said he is unaware of any case in which a white person has complained about being discriminated against at Thomas.

Thomas’ fall 2016 enrollment numbers were: 80 percent white, 1 percent Asian, 3 percent African-American, 1 percent Hispanic, 4 percent two or more races, 2 percent nonresident alien, and 9 percent unknown.

The college does not have a specific racial diversity goal, said Edwards.

BATES COLLEGE

Bates has an affirmative action policy that is under review and subject to change, according to its website.

The college in Lewiston has an Office of Equity and Diversity, which seeks to enact Bates’ plans for increasing the racial, ethnic and gender diversity on campus and helps develop a personnel policy to ensure equal opportunity.

Responding to reports of the Trump administration document, Marjorie Hall, director of strategic communications, said in a statement that Bates has “welcomed talented students from a wide range of backgrounds” since its founding in 1855 by abolitionists.

“Our admission policies, in keeping with the core principle that a diverse student body, representing a variety of interests and experiences, creates a stronger education for all students, adhere to state and federal equal opportunity laws affirmed by the Supreme Court,” Hall said in the statement.

Bates’ enrollment of 1,780 in the fall of 2016 broke down this way: Hispanic, 8.7 percent; American Indian or Alaska Native, non-Hispanic, 0.1 percent; Asian, non-Hispanic 4.2 percent; Black or African American, non-Hispanic, 5.8 percent; white, non-Hispanic, 69.8 percent; multiracial, 4.3 percent; international, 6.9 percent; unknown 0.2 percent.

COLBY COLLEGE

Colby officials declined comment on the Trump administration document, but on its website, the Waterville college says the admissions review process “is holistic, meaning there’s no set formula that guides our decisions.”

“We look for intellectually adventurous students who have demonstrated consistent achievement in a challenging program of study and who seem likely to make meaningful contributions to our diverse and collaborative community,” the page says.

The Colby website has a statement on diversity that says the college is “dedicated to the education of humane, thoughtful, and engaged persons prepared to respond to the challenges of an increasingly diverse and global society and to the issues of justice that arise therein.”

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Charles Eichacker and Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Noel Gallagher contributed to this report.

Amy Calder can be contacted at 861-9247 or at:

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