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The outside of Irvine hall on Ohio University campus Jan. 26, 2024 in Athens.

Around $450,000 in diversity scholarships are being reviewed

Vice President for Enrollment Management Candace Boeninger said around 130 total gift agreements for diversity scholarships are being reviewed, which accounts for around $450,000 of spending at Monday’s faculty senate meeting.

President Lori Stewart Gonzalez, Boeninger and Stacey Bennett, general counsel for Ohio University’s legal department, gave an update to the faculty senate about the university’s review of scholarships aimed at aiding people of diverse communities. 

OU paused awarding impacted scholarships according to Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulingon the Harvard case that prohibited racial considerations in college admissions. Yost told university leaders the ruling applies to scholarships despite the word “scholarship” appearing only oncein the case.

Yost sent a letter to university leaders in June that said employees will not be entitled to qualified immunity if they are litigated on race-based admissions. 

Boeninger said one of the major parts of the review is to ensure enrollment will not decrease as a result of aid being lost. She said the process of getting the gift agreements is lagging, but it is still planned to take place.

“That, I think, gets to the transparency question,” Boeninger said. "Where are the lists? Where's the information? Obviously, this is really sensitive and it's been legally privileged, which has been constraining operationally.”

Gonzalez said during the review OU has reduced which scholarships will be able to continue and which ones it needs to ask a donor to have a language change. She said the review process is moving as fast as it can but it will take some time to comply with state and federal law.

Gonzalez said removing these scholarships is not an action she wanted to take, and everyone in the Senate room had shown commitment to opening doors and removing barriers to students who had fewer opportunities than others. She said what they need to do is figure out ways to stay within the law but be as innovative as possible. 

“For us, it's that sadness, I would say, over what we have to do to comply in this era that we're in where some of the bedrock values are challenged by political positions,” Gonzalez said.

Faculty senators asked questions to Gonzalez and representatives from different departments. 

Bill Reader, a journalism professor and senator, asked if Gonzalez could point to the section in the Ohio Revised Code that indicates where these scholarships cannot be awarded. He said the attorney general’s interpretation is not law.

Gonzalez agreed there are no state or federal laws regarding the scholarship awards, but she cannot flout Yost, who she said can come down on university employees. She said Yost sent them a letter indicating OU lawyers could not defend university employees who made hires that he deemed inappropriate based on diversity.

Bennett said the SCOTUS decision is essentially a renewed interpretation of the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. Bennett said court cases are being filed across the country about diversity scholarships and, once they are decided, they will provide more clarity on their legal standing. 

“While we wait, we have to do our best to both comply with the new federal interpretation of our U.S. Constitution and protect our employees from acting outside the law as we know it,” Bennett said.

Nerissa Young, an associate professor of journalism professor who is not on the faculty senate, had previously spoken out against OU’s actions regarding diversity scholarships and did the same at this meeting. She thanked Gonzalez for attending the meeting and engaging the faculty with discussion, and she thanked the Senate for allowing her to speak.

Young said there have been many times in American history when wrongs were corrected, like the decision in Brown v. Board of Education and the 19th Amendment granting women suffrage.

“I am not questioning your ability to read the guidance from the (attorney general),” Young said. “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.”

Reader said he is aghast the university would not defend its employees, who are doing their job, simply because a lawsuit is presented. He said the scholarships could be just the start and asked if the attorney general could decide professors who are advising a student organization that has race as a factor will not get legal protection.

“I know the university hands are tied to a certain degree because of the way the law is written,” Reader said. “But I'm just very concerned that faculty are basically being told, ‘Don't act on anything that involves race, or you'll get sued, and our administration at this university will gladly throw you under the bus.'”

Bennett said it is true her legal authority is derived solely from the attorney general’s office. She said it is not new that public employees will be personally liable for acting outside of the law, and Yost directly said these scholarships fell outside the law in his June letter.


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