Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center agrees to discontinue using race during admissions

PHOTO: Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.PlaySTOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
WATCH Texas Tech medical school stops considering race in admissions process

A top House Democrat on Wednesday grilled Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over whether the administration was doing enough to encourage black men to enroll in medical school.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, asked DeVos what the administration was doing to increase the enrollment of black men in medical school, noting that there are fewer enrolled now than there were in 1978.

DeVos, after being pressed, answered that she doesn't think the department has "an offensive measure" to do so, and said it was up to individual institutions to follow Supreme Court rulings and their own admissions policies.

"Does that mean you're doing nothing?" Scott asked.

DeVos responded: "It means that we're following the laws that we're charged with following and we'll continue to do so."

The testy back-and-forth between Scott, who is the chairman for the House Education and Labor Committee, and DeVos comes just a day after it came to light that the Trump administration is requiring Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center to curb the use of race in its admissions process.

The requirement for the university to cease its practice of using race as a factor during the admissions process was part of an agreement with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, according to the resolution agreement viewed by ABC News.

The move follows an investigation that was opened more than a decade ago into the university’s pharmacy and medical schools and is an attempt to ensure the university is in compliance with federal civil rights laws, according to Department of Education spokesperson Liz Hill.

The Wall Street Journal was first to report on the agreement.

In question was whether the school’s admission practice violated part of the Civil Rights Act. According to the resolution agreement, if the university wishes to re-institute a policy that involves the use of race in admissions, it must provide “a reasoned, principled explanation for its decision,” and identify “concrete and precise goals” to the Office for Civil Rights 60 days prior to doing so.

PHOTO: Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.

Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel at the American Council on Education, a nonprofit with members across the spectrum of higher education, said the Education Department's decision "is a pause, not a prohibition."

"It looks to me like this was more about process and documentation than anything else," McDonough said. "What is important is that OCR did not find any failure on the medical school's part to narrowly tailor their use of race in admission as the Supreme Court standards require."

McDonough said he worries about the chilling effect it may have on universities' abilities to diversify their classes.

However, Art Coleman, managing partner of the education consulting firm Education Counsel and former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, cautioned not to read too much into the resolution.

An individual resolution with an institution doesn't set the stage for consequential action elsewhere, he said.

"We are sitting on top of 40 years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent. It gives us very clear guidance on how to pursue diversity goals that may be associated with race. The department hasn't, nor could it, overrule that guidance or those foundations. And so for institutions that are actually doing the right thing, taking the right steps," Coleman said, "they should feel well armed."

The agreement between the university and the Education Department was made at the end of February, which the TTUHSC entered into voluntarily.

Last year, ABC News reported that the Education Department and the Justice Department rolled back Obama-era affirmative action guidance, arguing that the previous guidelines went beyond the requirements of the Constitution to "prematurely decide, or appear to decide, whether particular actions violate the Constitution or federal law."

At the time, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in a statement said, "The Supreme Court has determined what affirmative action policies are Constitutional, and the Court’s written decisions are the best guide for navigating this complex issue. Schools should continue to offer equal opportunities for all students while abiding by the law."

ABC News' Adia Robinson and Stephanie Ebbs contributed to this report.