Ds Scholarship

Administrators at public universities must stand by researchers (opinion)

The recent controversy over the decision at the University of Florida to ban professors from participating in lawsuits against the state (a decision later reversed by President Kent Fox) is an example of the excessive politicization that has gripped many universities in recent years. University leaders, particularly those in public institutions, have become shy at arms over any action that could appear to antagonize their state’s politicians.

While governors and legislators can have a significant impact on public colleges and universities, presidents, deans, and deans must show the courage to stand up to them in order to protect the integrity of their institutions, faculty, and students. While many today seem reluctant or unable to do so, this is not always the case. An illustrative example from the beginning of my career can illustrate the critical impact that strong leadership can have.

In 2000, I was in my first academic position as an unqualified professor at the University of Michigan. I’ve done research on state-funded scholarship programs across the country, examining their impact on college access and whether they helped bridge or exacerbate the gaps in college participation between low-income students, students of color, and more advantaged groups.

The ACLU contacted me in Michigan about being an expert witness in a federal lawsuit (White v. Engler, 188 F. Supp. 2d 730 [E.D. Mich. 2001]) were in the process of filing a lawsuit against the state of Michigan and the state’s then-governor, John Engler. The suit would be a challenge in Title VI and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Michigan Award Scholarship Program, alleging that the program, which offered merit-based scholarships to college students, discriminated against low-income students and ethnic minorities in the state. The basis for the lawsuit was some preliminary analysis by the ACLU that showed that these students were less likely to receive scholarships than more advantaged students.

My role in the lawsuit is to do more detailed research on the disparate impact of the scholarship program, to testify about the results of my research in affidavits and ultimately in a federal trial if the lawsuit goes that far. When I started analyzing the data, I saw pretty quickly that the biggest beneficiary of this scholarship program was my own foundation, the University of Michigan. This was not a huge surprise, as the scholarships were awarded on the basis of academic merit and the university was the most selective university in the state, attracting many of its best students. A quick calculation on the back of the envelope showed that the university would likely receive tens of millions of dollars from this scholarship program annually.

I realized that a successful legal challenge to the program could cost the university this amount, as much of the scholarship money from the state was likely superseding the institutional grant aid that would have come directly from university funds. Immediately I was anxious to take part in the lawsuit, fearing that the university would see my work as a direct threat to its financial conditions. I was also concerned about whether the university would get pressure to take action against me from the legislators who created and supported the program, or even the governor, who was a defendant in the lawsuit and was also a huge supporter of the scholarships. And as a junior faculty member, I knew that I lacked the protection that a tenure afforded my senior colleagues.

On the other hand, I felt strongly from my research that the scholarship program was discriminatory and unlikely to help the state achieve its goal of increasing college participation. On the other hand, being in my first academic position and with a young family, I needed to take care of my job security and didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize my chance of getting a job position when I applied for promotion within a few years. . So I went and spoke with my department head at the time, and he asked for her advice on what I should do.

Her response was, “You should go talk to the dean and ask her what she thinks.” I didn’t know Dean Nancy Kantor (who later became chancellor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Syracuse University, and Rutgers University in Newark) well, other than seeing her at large group meetings. But I honestly made an appointment to see her in about a week.

When she interviewed the dean, she outlined the situation for her, emphasizing the potential financial impact of a successful lawsuit on the university. I asked if I felt my research was solid, and I answered that I thought it was, and was consistent with the work I had done studying the impact of other scholarship programs around the country.

Without hesitation, she replied, “Then you should work on the lawsuit with the ACLU. It’s important work, and if the program turns out to be in violation of the law, it should be closed. I will make sure there are no repercussions for you, even if we hear from anyone in the state government.” I thanked her, and with that affirmation, I went ahead and worked with the ACLU on the lawsuit.

I worked on the lawsuit for about two years, and my detailed analyzes confirmed that the program was disproportionately awarding scholarships to white, Asian, and wealthy students—all groups that were historically overrepresented in higher education. But in the end, the judge dismissed the lawsuit before trial on technical grounds, so you didn’t get a full courtroom hearing. I have never heard of anyone in the state government questioning my participation in the lawsuit.

It is important to recognize that the University of Michigan and the University of Florida are two different institutions. Michigan enjoys more autonomy under the state constitution and has an independently elected Board of Governors. In Florida, the governor appoints the majority of the members of the League Council, and he and the legislature have much greater influence over the institution. Historically, Michigan has been more immune to political interference than Florida.

If faculty members believe that their work will conflict with politicians, the independent pursuit of knowledge will suffer. As I look at my experience from 20 years ago, I appreciate the support my Dean has shown me, and her assurance that I will be shielded from outside political influences. She demonstrated the courage that university leaders have to show today to ensure that the work of faculty is not hampered by the political debates of that day.


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