Fighting for Scholarships in Oklahoma
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. Given this history, Pierce says it is still legally valid for Oklahoma to use race-specific scholarships to achieve diversity.The U.S. Department of Education is “of the firm belief and position that affirmative action in financial aid is constitutional. It’s been proven to be an effective tool to attract and maintain diversity on our nation’s campuses,” Pierce says. Olivas is dismayed that Oklahoma, a state located in the 10th Circuit, would suspend Adams-based programs that have yet to be challenged in court.“These states didn’t back down when Thurgood Marshall and others showed up and sued them [in the 1940s and 1950s] for maintaining segregated school systems,” he says. Scholars at Risk Stephanie Porterfield, a member of the Cherokee Indian tribe, is in the third year of a counseling psychology Ph.D. program at Oklahoma State University. During the latter half of her second year, she began getting scholarship support under the state regents’ minority doctoral grant program. The program, which provides a $6,000 annual grant, tuition fee waiver and a graduate assistantship, provided a tremendous boost to her doctoral education. “It’s made a big difference to me,” says Porterfield, who plans to be a professor and work as a psychologist in poor Indian communities. For many years, Oklahoma has had the distinction of educating the significantly large numbers of native Americans among state higher education systems. Porterfield says that prior to getting the scholarship she had already accumulated more than $100,000 in student loan debts from attaining undergraduate and master’s degrees, and completing the first year-and-a-half in her Ph.D. program. Had Porterfield not gotten into the grant program when she did, the Claremore, Okla., native would have had to seek support elsewhere because the state regents declined to accept new students in its scholarship program this fall. “I think it’s unfortunate because it’s the only way some students can make it,” says Porterfield, who is the first person in her immediate family to finish college. “Without the support, I would be getting more student loans,” she adds.Currently, Oklahoma is funding 13 minority students in the state regents’ doctoral program. Charlton McIlwain, a previous resident of Texas, says doctoral scholarship has made Oklahoma an attractive place for him to launch an academic career. McIlwain, who is Black, is in his fourth and final year as a doctoral student in communications at the University of Oklahoma-Norman. Program support requires participants to teach in the state’s four- or two-year colleges for the same number of academic years for which they were funded. “[Minority scholarship programs] provide a means by which state schools can increase minority faculty numbers,” he says. McIlwain expects to teach in Oklahoma longer than the three years for which he will have gotten support from the minority doctoral program. Dr. Janet Haggerty, dean of the graduate school at the University of Tulsa, says suspension of funding for new students in the Southern Regional Education Board minority doctoral scholars program meant that the private university had to guarantee financial support for two incoming minority graduate students. SREB, along with regional higher education consortiums in New England and the West, enlists states to fund minority students in a broad initiative known as the Compact for Faculty Diversity (see Black Issues, Oct. 28, 1999). In Oklahoma, SREB minority doctoral scholars received an annual stipend of $12,000, a tuition fee waiver and $5,000 in additional funding. The program operated at three institutions – the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, and the University of Tulsa. Five students remain in the SREB initiative.Although Haggerty declined to say whether the incoming minority students are getting less funding from the University of Tulsa than they would have gotten through the SREB initiative, she says the loss decreases total funding for all graduate students at the school. “I thought it was a shame that the program was suspended,” she says. “[Having such a program] enables you to do more for everyone.”In addition to the SREB and the state regents doctoral grants programs, the state regents suspended a third initiative, the Professional Study Grant program. The regents are responsible for providing funding for minorities during their first two years in Oklahoma’s professional schools. The schools, under the Complementary Minority Professional Study Grant program, assist the students in their third and fourth years. Eighteen students remain in Professional Study Grant programs at various professional schools. In addition to these students, the regents are allowing four first-year students at the University of Oklahoma College of Law to receive support because commitments were made to them before the regents took action on the other programs. Toure says it’s critical that the state support minority graduate scholars because the examples of Texas and California have shown him that the numbers of underrepresented minority graduate students fall off sharply without the support of targeted funding initiatives. “I think the assistance given to minority candidates still has to continue,” Toure says. “If you do not provide that type of support, the number of minorities [in graduate schools] goes down. That’s the experience in Texas, and clearly that’s the case in California.”
The Courts Hold Influence Attorneys for Pollard, a sophomore mechanical engineering major at the University of Tulsa, filed his lawsuit in federal district court in October 1998, charging that their client as well as numerous other White Oklahoma students suffered discrimination with regard to the Academic Scholars Program. Edward White, one of two Oklahoma City attorneys representing Pollard, says the undergraduate merit scholarship program required that Whites meet one set of standards while minorities meet another to qualify for the scholarship. “This program does not meet constitutional muster,” White says. The lawsuit, is seeking damages for the Tulsa native as well as any other students who qualifies for the class action against the state regents. White whose co-counsel is Andrew Spiropoulos, an Oklahoma City University law professor, is no strangers to affirmative action lawsuits. He filed a class-action suit this year against the state of Oklahoma over a minority contracting program. White, who is aware of the targeted litigation brought by conservative organizations, such as the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Individual Rights, says he and his co-counsel are working alone on the case. He adds that he has sought to have discussions with CIR attorneys, but notes they have yet to contact him in return. “They’ve been too busy,” he says, adding that the Pollard trial is set for February 2000. The state regents began evaluating their minority graduate student initiatives last fall. Meanwhile, state legislators, including the five Black Senate and House Democrats, worried that the federal district court judge might issue an injunction against the Academic Scholars Program. Toure says the merit program had been created by state legislature. In the waning days of the legislative session back in May, the program language underwent modification to make it as race-neutral as possible. “We were reacting to what we considered to be an attack on the program,” Toure says. The state regents have taken an approach many see as problematic because they have yet to design a program that would support minority scholars. While Toure and other Black legislators are taking a wait-and-see approach to the minority graduate scholarship issue, they remain highly critical of the state’s Republican governor, who failed to re-appoint an African American to the regents board earlier this year. Over the past several years, Toure and others have repeatedly urged Gov. Frank Keating to appoint more minorities to the state’s various higher education boards – which include those for the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University and other public colleges – as well as to the state board of education. “There’s been a reluctance [by this Administration] to have African Americans at the education table,” Toure says. “We’re still battling the effects of past discrimination.”
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