Universities Review Legality of Diversity Scholarships

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Prompted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s (SCOTUS) banning of race-conscious admissions last summer, some colleges and universities are considering the legality of certain diversity-focused scholarships. 

Though no current laws or court rulings ban protected class-specific scholarships, institutions are becoming wary as lawsuits are being filed against schools and companies for any DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) practices that show any preference based on race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. 

Given SCOTUS’s past rulings, some legal experts argue that diversity scholarships could be the next DEI component on the chopping block. Two notable examples of this apprehension are the University of Iowa (UI) and Ohio University (OU), both of which are currently reviewing their scholarships based on protected class status. 

A primary concern at UI is the wording and criteria for certain scholarships. For instance, the university’s Advantage Iowa Award, which was previously reserved for first-year students from historically underrepresented populations, was changed to a need-based award for students from all backgrounds.

Similarly, OU administrators and faculty discussed the review of approximately 130 gift agreements tied to diversity scholarships, totaling nearly $450,000, at a faculty senate meeting Monday. The awards have been paused for the 2024-2025 academic year due to Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s interpretation of SCOTUS’ ruling on race-conscious admissions, despite no explicit mention of scholarships within the analysis. However, Yost threatened legal action against university employees who make “inappropriate” hires based on race.

At the meeting, several faculty defended race-conscious scholarships and urged the university to continue awarding them given that doing so does not violate the law. 

“I am not questioning your ability to read the guidance from [Yost],” Nerissa Young, an associate journalism professor at OU told university administrators during the faculty senate meeting. “I am questioning the moral courage of this university, a place that is supposed to be a leader in challenging the status quo and fighting for better circumstances for all students.”

Along with the likely impact that scholarship changes will have on enrollment, admissions, and study body makeup, it can also create tension between universities and their donors whose monetary gifts were intended to award funds to underserved students. 

“One of the things that’s hard to navigate is that the donor has an intent and so there’s conflict between the legal imperative to open them up and the donor’s intent, because if somebody gives the university money for a particular thing, you can’t just change it without consulting the donor,” Colin Gordon, UI’s department of history chair, told the Daily Iowan.