University-Industry Engagement Week

Court rulings, legislation putting some DEI collaborations in jeopardy

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: November 7th, 2023

A detailed article on the recent judicial and legislative threats to DEI-focused partnerships between universities and their industry partners appears in the November issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here.

DEI collaborations between universities and their industry partners have been steadily on the rise in recent years; academic institutions appreciate the many benefits of a diverse student body, while corporations see similar value in a diverse workforce. But these laudable goals may be on a collision course with recent court cases — including a Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action — and new legislation on the state level.

For example, an Atlanta VC, Fearless Fund, had its grant program for Black women sued by American Alliance for Equal Rights, which also sued two law firms over their diversity fellowships. That same group appears poised to challenge many other programs that give any preference based on race, gender, or other categories of the under-represented population.

Meanwhile, U.S. News & World Report cited a report by the Chronicle of Higher Education that as of July 2023, 40 bills had been introduced in 22 states that would place restrictions on DEI initiatives at public colleges. At the time, legislation to limit or prohibit using federal or state funding to support DEI offices or staff at public colleges, mandating diversity training, using diversity statements in hiring and promotion, or using identity-based preferences in hiring and admissions had officially passed in five states: Florida, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas.

These and related activities seeking to challenge diversity efforts at universities have already begun to have an impact on some university-industry collaborations, says Lisa L. Mueller, JD, a partner in the law firm of Casimir Jones, S.C., in Middleton, WI, and chair of AUTM’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion committee.

“There is a lot of concern,” she says. “Several states have passed laws banning diversity statements.” She notes that there are concerns, for example, that this may lead to less diverse faculty. “If so, that will obviously be translated into less diversity going to industry, or collaborating with industry,” she asserts.

“A lot of states have laws saying there will be no more mandatory diversity training; how do you attract students if you do not have diversity faculty or training?” she continues. “This fear could escalate. Already you have a lack of women and minorities in STEM in general to work and collaborate with industry. All of these programs that have been trying to increase the [inclusion of underrepresented communities] are at risk in light of the Supreme Court decision.”

In fact, one such program is beyond ‘at risk;’ it no longer can operate out of its university. The program, called “Equalize,” faced a Title IX complaint. (Title IX bars federally funded education programs and activities from discriminating on the basis of sex). The program was designed to encourage women to engage in start-ups through pitch events and other entrepreneurship programming for women.

“We got a letter from DOE that essentially said we were not compliant with Title IX obligations,” shares Nichole Mercier, assistant vice chancellor for Washington University in St. Louis and the managing director of the Office of Technology Management. “We would have had to essentially offer what we offer to women to anybody who would apply.”

It appears that the greatest challenges may lie at the program level, rather than in the corporate engagement office. Many of those offices, like the one at the University of Mississippi, continue to offer and move forward with industry collaborations that focus on diversity despite the current climate. Says Hughes Miller, director of industry giving and engagement at Ole Miss, “I know we are continuing to talk about various [DEI] initiatives and programs with industry partners, and they’re plugged in and as engaged as they want to be.” As for challenges stemming from judicial or legislative decisions? “They’ve not come up yet,” he reports.

“It varies from state to state and whether an institution is public or private; obviously private universities have a lot more flexibility than public,” he continues. “Also, you have different political dynamics that vary from campus to campus.”

Click here to continue reading this article with a subscription to University-Industry Engagement Advisor. Already a subscriber? Click here to log in.

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week