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

Meanwhile, 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 based on an internal U.S. 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 all have race-based admissions policies, while the University of Maine System does not.

Doug Cook, director of news and media relations for Bowdoin College in Brunswick, said college officials saw the Times story but had no firsthand knowledge of any change in government policy. Asked if any white person ever has complained about being discriminated against at Bowdoin, he said the college has not been challenged on that issue and 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.

The seven campuses in the University of Maine System do not consider race or gender in admissions, spokesman Dan Demeritt said.

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.”

Even so, the public institution is committed to making students from all ethnic, racial, religious and other backgrounds feel welcome despite any specific policies, according to Robert Dana, vice president for student life at the University of Maine. 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 about 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.

“We want to fully reflect the society we live in,” 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.”

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

In 2012, Colby, Bates and Bowdoin colleges 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 before the high court. Thirty-seven highly selective liberal arts colleges and universities signed the brief, arguing they could not create sufficiently inclusive and vibrant environments through race-neutral admissions. The court’s final decision in 2016 ruled 4-3 that the Texas university’s race-conscious program could be upheld, signaling again that such an affirmative action effort is constitutional.

PROMOTING DIVERSITY

Courts have ruled that colleges and universities may consider race as part of a comprehensive, holistic admissions process aimed at ensuring a diverse and inclusive student body, said Thomas Edwards, provost of Thomas College in Waterville, which does not consider race in its admissions process. The presumption is that a diverse student body offers educational benefits to students and the broader community they will serve when they graduate, he said.

“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.”

Bates College in Lewiston has an affirmative action policy that is under review and subject to change, according to Bates’ website.

The college 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 assure equal opportunity. That office also handles communication between the college and organizations off campus that promote diversity, supports campus initiatives that promote an institutional culture of inclusiveness and develops educational programs.

Asked to respond to reports of the Trump administration document, Bates issued a statement that said the college 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,” the statement said.

Bates’ fall enrollment for 2016 of 1,780 students 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.

Edwards said Thomas College invites applications from candidates “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.”

“To that end, we welcome a diverse student body, faculty and staff,” he said. “Whether it is working collaboratively with Colby College and the Waterville community with our ‘Campus Conversations on Race’ or having our students volunteer or intern with area organizations or businesses, we hope our students come to recognize the strength and vibrancy of a community built on principles of respect and inclusion.”

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

“I think that the institutions and community are pretty open and forthright, and I think we, overall, look to be integrated,” he said.

He said that while 80 percent of Thomas’ student population is white, the college has a significantly diverse population as well. 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.

Thomas College does not have a specific racial diversity goal, according to Edwards.

“We’re not in a position to try to put a percentage or number on it,” he said. “We try throughout to keep our definition of diversity broad enough, and inclusive enough, that as with those schools that may use race as one of many factors in admissions, it’s just one of many factors in terms of our student body overall.”

Colby College officials declined to comment on the Trump administration document, but on its website the Waterville college cites a commitment to diversity and says it has support programs and campuswide committees designed to encourage student success. Its admissions Web page 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.

Its most recent diversity statistics available online, from a 2012 report, say students of color made up 21 percent of its class of 2016. In 2012, 5 percent of students were listed as multi-racial; 5 percent Asian Americans, 8 percent Latino, and 3 percent African-American.

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.

“The College also is committed to fostering a fully inclusive campus community, enriched by persons of different races, gender identities, ethnicities, nationalities, economic backgrounds, ages, abilities, sexual orientations, political beliefs, and spiritual values,” Colby’s statement reads. “We strive to confront and overcome actions and attitudes that discourage the widest possible range of participation in our community, and we seek to deepen our understanding of diversity in our daily relationships and in our dealings as an institution.”

One of every 3 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.

Micaela Bedell, associate director of media relations and marketing at Unity College, said the college had no comment on the admissions issue as reported by the Times. At Unity, where enrollment is 665 students, 91.6 percent are white; 0.6 percent are American Indian or Alaskan Native; 1.5 percent are Asian; 0.8 percent are Black or African American; 1.8 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 3.6 percent are two or more races; and 0.2 percent are nonresident alien.

‘ALL GROUPS GET SERVED’

Despite not considering race in admissions, the University of Maine at Orono does make an effort to diversify its student body. A statement on the university’s website affirms a commitment to diversity in both the staff and student body and states that one of the institution’s goals is to “increase the percentage of undergraduate and graduate students of color.”

Systemwide, total enrollment was 29,465 in fall 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.

From 2012 to 2016, the number of black and Hispanic students at 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.

“It’s not one group that gets served over another,” said Dana, the vice president for student life at UMaine. “All groups get served here.”

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

“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 fall 2015, the latest data 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 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.”

Staff writer Charles Eichacker and Portland Press Herald staff writer Noel Gallagher contributed to this report.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

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Twitter: @AmyCalder17