A Virginia-based think tank that played a significant role in limiting the use of affirmative action in college admissions is now focused on N.C. State University’s admissions policies.

The Center for Equal Opportunity, devoted to “colorblind” admissions policies for universities, recently released a report accusing N.C. State of weighing race too heavily in its admissions policy. Translation: There are too many black and Latino students on campus.

Based on the report, the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation into the allegation in July, the university confirmed this week.

For the UNC System, the investigation comes as another in a series of criticisms from conservative organizations and think tanks.

The Center for Equal Opportunity released a report on N.C State’s admissions policies and forwarded it to the Department of Education in 2004. The same organization filed an amicus brief in the University of Michigan case that led to the 2003 Supreme Court decision limiting the role of race in admissions.

“These organizations have a right to ask these questions,” says Jose Picart, vice provost for diversity and African-American affairs at NCSU. But, Picart said, the school’s admissions policies “use race appropriately.”

Picart said the university learned of the investigation mid-summer and the federal agency requested data at the beginning of the school year. The university has until this month to respond to the requests, according to Picart. It is unknown what specific information the department requested. The investigation is expected to take two or three years.

A representative of the Department of Education’s Investigation Services said they cannot confirm or deny the existence of any investigations.

Several administration officials at N.C. State declined to comment and directed questions to Keith Nichols, news and communications director for the university. Nichols called the investigation a “regulatory compliance issue” and declined to comment further.

Roger Clegg, general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, says N.C. State is “still using racial and ethnic preferences” in its admissions policies. Clegg went on to say the school “sets numerical goals” for minority admissions, a policy that has tighter restrictions since the University of Michigan decision by the Supreme Court.

“The Supreme Court set limits for the use of racial and ethnic preferences, and N.C. State is going beyond those limits,” Clegg says. He later added that he hopes the investigation “requires NCSU to conform its admissions policies to the law.”

The Center for Equal Opportunity is a think tank opposed to affirmative action, with much of its funding coming from conservative foundations across the country such as the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the Bradley Foundation. Financial records even include $8,500 from Raleigh’s own John William Pope Foundation over the last 10 years.

Between 1994 and 2004, African-American admissions at N.C. State have fluctuated between 9 and 12 percent. Last year, African Americans made up 10.4 percent of freshman admissions, while white students made up 80.8 percent.

That is nowhere near representative of the state’s population, which is approximately 21.6 percent black, 4.7 percent Latino and 72.1 percent white, according to the most recent Census data.

The Center for Equal Opportunity is affiliated with the Center for Individual Rights, a pro bono law firm that supports conservative causes. The Center for Individual Rights filed the complaint against the University of Michigan eight years ago that resulted in a landmark Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action in 2003. As the trial got under way, the Center for Equal Opportunity published a report criticizing Michigan’s admissions policies and filed an amicus brief in support of the suit.

The 2003 ruling by the Supreme Court limited the weight public universities can give to race in admissions policies. The decision involved two cases against the University of Michigan, one challenging the law school admissions policy and one against the undergraduate policy. The court ruled in favor of the law school’s policy, but against the undergraduate school because, the court said, it violated the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment. The difference between the two is that undergraduate admissions automatically gave points to minority students that equaled approximately one full point in GPA, making race a “deciding factor,” the court said.

Jack Boger, a distinguished professor in the UNC School of Law, explains the two Michigan rulings this way: Race can be used as a factor in making decisions in college admissions, but it walks a very gray line. “On the one hand, using strict quotas is unconstitutional.”

But, citing Justice O’Connor’s words, Boger says a classroom should have a “critical mass” of minority students. He says setting a “threshold or target” is constitutional and there is a “compelling government interest” in having diversity in the classroom.

“Colleges using race in admissions are absolutely justified in doing so,” Boger said.

In November 2004, the Center for Equal Opportunity presented a report at the Virginia Association of Scholars’ annual meeting accusing the University of Virginia, the William and Mary Law School and N.C. State of giving too much weight to race in considering applicants. The report says admissions policies at N.C. State give preference to Latino and African-American students.

Clegg said the organization gathered information for the report from publicly available documents and Freedom of Information Act requests by the National Association of Scholars, a conservative association of academics and university administrators.