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Science Associations Publish Legal Handbook on Diversity Strategies

Women and minorities in this country are woefully underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). That’s very bad news for a nation undergoing a major demographic shift that by 2050 will make minorities the majority of the population.

In fact, experts believe that the U.S. could find itself at the bottom of the pack in the critical areas of economic strength, innovation, and national security if colleges and universities do not find ways to boost the number of women and minorities in the STEM fields in student bodies and faculties. The task has been made especially difficult by a political environment where affirmative action efforts that hint of racial preferences are highly vulnerable to legal challenges.

At least two prominent national science organizations are taking very seriously the legal difficulties that U.S. higher education institutions face as they develop and pursue STEM diversity strategies.  

To help institutions navigate this thorny issue, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Association of American Universities (AAU) have released what they call a “first-of-its-kind” handbook, titled “Navigating a Complex Landscape to Foster Greater Faculty and Student Diversity in Higher Education,” that  provides examples of “field-tested tools” for diversifying faculty and student bodies.

“The rhetoric that surrounds this issue is often unheeded and duly restrictive. Words such as quotas and reverse discrimination are often invoked. But race-neutral alternatives are not the only path to careers in our merit-based society,” said Dr. Daryl E. Chubin, founding director of the AAAS’s Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity. “We need a partnership of educators, policymakers and lawyers to design and implement effective and legally sustainable diversity programs.”

During a news teleconference Wednesday afternoon, a panel of education experts joined Chubin to announce and discuss the handbook’s release.

“The good news is that there are many educationally sound and legally supportable positions that can be taken to enhance our goals of increasing the diversity of our nation’s students and faculty who are focused on STEM issues,” said former U.S. Education Secretary Richard Wiley during the teleconference.

In addition, Jamie Lewis Keith, vice president and general counsel at the University of Florida and one of the handbook’s co-authors, explained that the handbook provides college and university lawyers with comprehensive, in-depth legal materials pegged to particular models and types of effective diversity programs.

“It covers a host of governing, constitutional, statutory and regulatory regimes and the primary federal and state case law for lawyers, as well as rich program and policy resources for provosts and academic leaders,” Keith said.

Keith suggested that schools can easily take advantage of diversity strategies that are  legally sustainable but also “critical in the real world to achieving diversity.” One example is the search and outreach process, which they can use to increase the diversity of their recruitment pool by looking at talented people from a broad range of programs.

“Look for individuals who have a record of working with individuals who are different than themselves, who have either scaled barriers themselves or broken down barriers for others, and actually exhibit that conduct in the way they undertake their work,” Keith said. “We can identify individuals of all races, genders and backgrounds who will actually create an environment of inclusion and increase diversity.”

In addition to providing other race- and gender-neutral alternatives, the handbook examines a variety of court cases and directs users to government, journal and media websites, policy papers and professional associations that provide recruitment assistance in the STEM fields. It also reviews key legal issues and laws, including Title VI, Title IV, and Title IX and the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

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