SIU Opens Minority Fellowships to All Students
University complies with Department of Justice to avoid costly legal battle
The Southern Illinois University board of trustees voted unanimously last month to accept a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice that averts a potential lawsuit over three graduate fellowships. The Justice Department had threatened to sue the school on the grounds that the fellowships, aimed at ethnic minorities and women, were discriminatory. Rather than face an expensive and likely fruitless legal battle, the university relented, opening the fellowships to all students.
“The board’s decision to settle this issue preserves Southern Illinois University’s fundamental right to recruit faculty and students from all backgrounds, while reaffirming that this university will exercise such rights within the parameters of all equal employment opportunity laws,” said SIU President Glenn Poshard after the trustee vote.
According to SIU General Counsel Jerry Blakemore, the university admitted no guilt and suffered no fines or fees by accepting the settlement. The students currently enrolled in the fellowships will keep their funding and face no punishment from the government. Blakemore says SIU’s lawyers, an independent law firm and attorneys from across the state all concluded that it would be an unnecessary waste to fight the Justice Department in court.
“I have advised president [Poshard] and the board of trustees that it would be highly unlikely that we would be successful in litigating this case,” Blakemore says. The legal team also agreed with the Justice Department’s position that fellowship recipients were employees of the university, rather than students, because they were required to work a minimum number of hours each week.
As part of the settlement, the Justice Department will monitor SIU for two years, watching for racial, gender, national origin or religious bias in the fellowship process.
The three controversial fellowships — PROMPT, Bridge to the Doctorate and the Graduate Dean’s Fellowship — produced less than 2 percent of the university’s graduate student fellowships in the 2005-2006 academic year. The three fellowships accounted for only 28 of the approximately 1,700 awarded. According to Poshard, the fact that 40 percent of the overall fellowship recipients were non-White illustrates SIU’s commitment to diversity.
“The critical issue is how the university can continue its traditions of inclusiveness, of seeking a diverse and varied student body, faculty and staff within the law,” he says.
Tequia Hicks, the elected student trustee from SIU’s Carbondale campus, says the settlement keeps the programs open and allows the 28 students they serve to remain at the university.
“The [settlement] protects all students currently enrolled in the questioned programs. These students met high academic standards to get into these programs and are valuable assets to the university. The settlement secures their future with the university,” she says.
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