The Leadership Conference is working diligently to see that Tom Perez is confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Labor. Perez is an eminently qualified public servant and consensus builder who has dedicated his career to ensuring that all individuals are treated fairly and have the opportunity to succeed. He has served with integrity and distinction at the local, state and national level, compiling an outstanding record of achievement.
DOJ Threatens Lawsuit Over Southern Illinois University's Affirmative Action Program
Feature Story by Tyler Lewis - 12/9/2005The Department of Justice (DOJ) has targeted three fellowship programs at Southern Illinois University (SIU) for discriminating against men, whites, and "non-preferred minorities," demanding that the university either eliminate the fellowships or face the threat of a lawsuit.
The fellowships cited in a November 4 letter from DOJ's Civil Rights Division to SIU are the Proactive Recruitment and Multicultural Professionals for Tomorrow (PROMPT) fellowship, the Graduate Dean's Fellowship, and the Bridge to the Doctorate program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Most of the recipients of these fellowships have been traditionally under-represented minorities and women.
DOJ's actions follow an initial contact that was made by the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO), a conservative think tank opposed to affirmative action. DOJ rarely takes action against fellowships in higher education, but has challenged SIU's fellowships under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which addresses employment discrimination, because the fellowships include employment in the university's academic departments.
The 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger Supreme Court decision upheld diversity as a compelling state interest that would support affirmative action programs, as well as the consideration of race as one of many factors in higher education admissions. Nonetheless, since Grutter, CEO has filed numerous complaints with the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights challenging affirmative action programs at colleges and universities across the country.
CEO initially contacted SIU last year, but the university said it stood by its fellowships. "We've done a very careful review of all our programs that were designed to foster diversity," said SIU Chancellor Walter Wendler, according to the UNC Daily Tarheel. "We think they are consistent with federal law."
"Affirmative action is, and continues to be, one means by which qualified individuals are guaranteed equal access to higher education," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "The Department of Justice's unprecedented action is another in the Bush administration's pattern of responding to conservative groups looking to turn the tide on efforts to guarantee equal access to fellowships and scholarships for women and other underrepresented communities."
Proponents of affirmative action programs say the DOJ's lawsuit will undermine decades-long efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity on college campuses. Less than 8 percent of SIU's graduate population is black or Latino. Elise Boddie, education director for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said she's "appalled that of all the ways the Department of Justice can choose to spend its resources, it is choosing to challenge programs that, at their core, are about remedying inequality."
Illinois lawmakers have expressed concern about DOJ's action. "I believe it's important to make sure that graduate programs at SIU Carbondale and across the nation comply with the law," Senator Barack Obama, D. Ill., told SIU. "I also strongly believe that it's important to reach out to people who are underrepresented in the fields of math and science. One of the programs being sued seeks to increase the number of students from underrepresented populations in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. When only 7 percent of science and engineering graduate students nationwide were African-American in 2003, and only 6 percent were Hispanic, it's discouraging that the (Bush) Administration would take issue with this program."
John Shimkus, R. Ill., acknowledged the history of inequality that supporters of affirmative action say makes the programs necessary. "Unfortunately, not every person starts at the same place in our society in our educational institutions. Many times those barriers to advancement are based on race." Shimkus said.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D.Ill., told the Southern Illinoisan that he feared a larger political purpose behind DOJ's action and that he stands behind SIUC if it wants to defend the fellowships.
University officials requested a meeting and a 30-day extension to allow for a review of the application history for each of the three fellowships.