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Diversity scholarships, legal protections for faculty threatened

This is a developing story. Last updated Feb. 23 at 4:59 p.m.

Ohio University faculty has been unofficially mandated not to award diversity scholarships for the 2024-2025 school year, based on Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s interpretation of the June 2023 U.S. Supreme Court decision on affirmative action. 

The decision struck down affirmative action in college admissions, prohibiting race from consideration when accepting students to universities; however, the decision did not include directives on race-based scholarships. Shortly after the decision, Yost sent a letter to Ohio’s public colleges and universities stating employees would be individually liable in any lawsuits alleging violations of the affirmative action ban. 

In a Scripps College Dean’s Directors meeting on Feb. 8, Scripps College of Communications Dean Scott Titsworth allegedly shared he had received a directive to not award 2024-2025 diversity scholarships from outside donors based on Yost’s interpretation of the Supreme Court decision. 

If professors do participate in the awarding of diversity-based scholarships, they have been informed they may be held personally liable for any relevant lawsuits. Thus, if a student who is not from a diverse background sues the university for awarding money to someone who is with claims of tokenism, individual professors could be held liable in court. 

Bill Reader, professor of journalism and member of the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism Scholarship Committee, said the recent decisions have put faculty members in “legal peril.”

“We have been improperly and informally told that, if sued for awarding certain (or any?) scholarships, the university will not defend us in court,” Reader wrote in an email sent to fellow faculty obtained by The Post. “That being the case, any action beyond abstention would be risky and ill-advised.”

According to Reader, scholarships were awarded based on faculty scholarship committee input. Committee members traditionally review applications as assigned, rank them as directed and submit their findings to committee co-chairs. 

“It really doesn’t matter what an individual faculty member’s views are about DEI scholarships,” Reader wrote in an email. “If the department gets sued, those who vote on scholarship recommendations — yay or nay — we have no assurances that Ohio University will support its employees. Our only option in such a case is to abstain entirely from the process.”

A news release from the university published Thursday stated the university is reviewing the selection criteria for admissions and scholarships to ensure they follow the Supreme Court decision’s parameters. The same is being done for gift agreements, the release continued.

“We are temporarily pausing the awarding of impacted scholarships, which represent a small but important subset of our annual awards, as we contemplate any necessary revisions,” the news release wrote. “Scholarships already awarded to current students are not impacted by this review. Current students will continue to receive renewable scholarships if they meet the renewal criteria. We will work with our dedicated donors to ensure we continue to honor their wishes and support students.”

According to an email from Dan Pittman, a university spokesperson, the Templeton Scholarship program, named for John Newton Templeton, OU’s first Black graduate, and the Appalachian and Urban Scholars programs will continue next year, Pittman said. These are all for incoming first-year students and, according to Pittman, are all merit-based, although all three exist under the umbrella category of “diversity scholarships,” according to the university’s scholarship page

The university has yet to confirm how many scholarships will be affected, although Pittman echoed the words of the release, stating it was a “small but important” number. 

“While this review process is one we must undertake as a university, we can, and we will continue to ensure that our scholarship award programs and processes honor our students and the donors who support them and consider the unique contributions that students from a variety of backgrounds bring to our University,” university President Lori Stewart Gonzalez wrote in an email via Pittman. 

Associate Professor of journalism Nerissa Young said that Scripps College gave out over $400,000 in scholarships last year that have been used to support students in a variety of journalistic experiential learning endeavors. 

According to emails acquired by The Post, faculty members can use last year’s financial need data to make scholarship decisions on 17 need-based scholarships in the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism. The school has 53 scholarships for journalism students, according to the School of Journalism scholarships page: five scholarships for incoming students and 48 for current members. 

“Many of our scholarships are from donors who chose the guidelines for how they wanted their money to be spent, and often it is something very close to them or their careers, and they want to emphasize those skills or those abilities or those efforts,” Young said. “If you look and say, ‘Well, we're not going to honor these earmarks, but we're going to honor the others,’ that is a violation of equal protection.” 

Equal protection refers to a clause of the Fourteenth Amendment which protects against discrimination. 

An upcoming Faculty Senate meeting scheduled for March 4 will hear from the university Provost and Executive Vice President Elizabeth Sayrs on the scholarship decisions, according to an email from aculty Senate Chair Sarah Wyatt acquired by The Post. However, a formal agenda for the meeting has not yet been released. Pittman said Gonzalez will also attend, which had not previously been indicated to staff, before Friday, Feb. 23. 

“This is a time where moral courage and leadership are called for,” Young said. “If we can't get that from the person who is the attorney for us by virtue of being State Attorney General, and we can't get that support from our university president to say, ‘You know what, despite what the Ohio Attorney General says we know that giving as many scholarships as possible as the right thing to do for our students, for our state,’ then faculty are left with very few options and none of them are good.” 

Frustrations are also arising due to the lack of written explanation. Reader wrote in an email to Wyatt, acquired by The Post, that faculty members have not received a written explanation on any decisions. 

Last October, OU received the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award for the sixth consecutive year, partly due to its “Make Respect Visible” campaign. The university website states its vision for diversity and inclusion is “to celebrate all members of our university community and to broaden our collective understanding by uplifting diverse identities, cultures, experiences and perspectives.” 

Associate Professor of journalism Victoria LaPoe said it feels like university officials are not seeking input from faculty, nor are they considering students’ best interests. 

“If you're going to be a leader, and you want to be a leader, and you're going to make it known and ‘Make Respect Visible’ and all this stuff, you (have) got to do it all the time,” LaPoe said. “You can't just do it when it's beneficial to you.”

As things stand, several journalism faculty members, including LaPoe and Reader, plan to abstain from voting for or against this year’s scholarship recommendations. They said they feel abstaining is the only fair path to protect themselves from any legal action administrators allegedly will not protect professors from. LaPoe said she feels that if she cannot equitably vote for all scholarships, she should not vote for any. 

Olivia Gilliand conducted all in-person interviews cited above. Both she and Donovan Hunt contributed to this report.


Katie Millard


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