Under Pressure from Justice Dept., Southern Illinois University Agrees to Change Minority Fellowships
Feature Story by Tyler Lewis - 2/15/2006Facing the threat of a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Southern Illinois University (SIU) agreed on February 8 to change three fellowship programs whose recipients have been mainly underrepresented minorities or women.
"We are disappointed with SIU's decision," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "Responding to the Department of Justice's unprecedented threat in this manner sends a message that ensuring equal opportunity and access to minorities and women is no longer a priority of our nation's colleges and universities."
Last November, DOJ targeted three fellowship programs at Southern Illinois University (SIU) for discriminating against men, whites, and "non-preferred minorities," threatening to sue the university if it did not eliminate the programs.
SIU's two-year consent decree with DOJ prohibits the university from recruitment or employment of individuals for fellowships solely on the basis of race, national origin, or sex. The decree also requires the university to provide DOJ with detailed reports on the fellowships every six months for the term of the agreement.
The consent decree is not an admission of liability on the part of SIU, and SIU continues to maintain that the fellowships do not unlawfully discriminate.
"We have always felt that the fellowships in question were but a small part of an overall graduate program that provides opportunities for thousands of our students, from every imaginable cultural background, to pursue graduate degrees while working at Southern Illinois University," said SIU President Dr. Glenn Poshard, in a statement to the university's board of trustees on February 8.
The fellowships cited by the DOJ last November 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. DOJ challenged them under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which addresses employment discrimination, because the fellowships include employment in the universities academic departments
"These fellowships sought to address the serious under-representation of women and minorities in the fields of science and engineering," said Anurima Bhargava, Assistant Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "The Department of Justice's action simply exacerbates the problem, and hinders the legitimate efforts of colleges and universities to create equal educational opportunity."
DOJ rarely takes action against fellowships in higher education. The agency challenged SIU following an initial contact that was made by the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO), a conservative think tank opposed to affirmative action. CEO has filed numerous complaints with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights challenging affirmative action programs at colleges and universities across the country.
Upon learning that DOJ was contesting SIU's fellowships, LCCR's Henderson said the move was just "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."
Prominent state and national leaders who had supported SIU's position included Illinois Senators Barack Obama, D. and Richard Durbin, D., and U.S. Representative John Shimkus, R. Ill.
In a statement, SIU's Poshard said that the university plans to "continue its creed and tradition of being inclusive."
The university will establish task forces to ensure that all other graduate fellowships' criteria will be inclusive of minorities and women.