Fearing that the federal district court in Oklahoma City might shut down a state-financed merit scholarship program targeted by a discrimination lawsuit, Oklahoma State Rep. Opio Toure (D-Oklahoma City) and other Black Democratic legislators got a bill passed last spring to make the program race and gender neutral.
Toure's and his colleagues' action came after University of Tulsa freshman Matthew Scott Pollard filed a class-action lawsuit against the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education claiming the scholarship discriminated against Whites. The legislators' revision represents a controversial alternative to race-specific affirmative action programs. It also is a sign of the times.
"We felt it was necessary to re-engineer the program in order to preserve it," says Toure, a member of the Oklahoma House's higher education subcommittee. Little did he know then, the battle was just beginning.
Early last summer, unbeknown to Toure, the state's nine-member, all-White and all-male higher education board of regents suspended the state's graduate and professional school minority scholarship programs. Their action reversed policies originally devised under federal court orders to desegregate Oklahoma's higher education system. The suspension has so far denied support to new graduate students, but those already in the program continue to receive funding. Last month, the regents' staff recommended phasing out the minority graduate school grant programs altogether.
"There's uncertainty in pursuing diversity in [higher education] because it's not clear what's permissible," says Dr. Hans Brisch, chancellor of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.
Regents' officials say they will try to create race-neutral scholarship initiatives to replace the ones facing elimination. But Oklahoma officials and affirmative action supporters nationwide say they are disappointed that the state is moving to dismantle programs that were specifically enacted to address the state's past history of discrimination.
"It's particularly troubling that these [university systems] cave in at the first sign of litigation," says Michael Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston and an expert on civil rights law.
Toure, who learned of the state regents' action only last month, says the state has an obligation to ensure diversity in its higher education system. "I'm concerned that we don't have anything in its place, particularly since the suspended programs were not challenged in court."
What makes Oklahoma significant is that it was one of the original 19 states that had come under federal court orders in the late 1970s to desegregate its higher education system. Two of the scholarship programs now under suspension resulted directly from the federal desegregation case known as Adams, which obligated mostly southern states to support initiatives to increase the numbers of Blacks and other minorities in higher education programs.
Some affirmative action proponents say states like Oklahoma are surrendering too easily to the threat of lawsuits. Olivas says that court decisions, such as the Poberesky case, that banned a race-specific scholarship at the University of Maryland, have no bearing on Oklahoma. He adds that Mississippi and Louisiana, which are also Adams states, have continued race-specific initiatives despite the Fifth Circuit's ruling in the Hopwood case. As a result of the Hopwood decision, Texas officials banned the use of race-conscious practices in both state higher education admissions and scholarship programs. That ban, however, is currently under review by the Texas attorney general.
Raymond Pierce, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, says in 1988, Oklahoma was among the first states to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The states implicated in the Adams case were originally found in violation of that act. …