Higher Education

Adam Kissel | April 25, 2022

More discrimination at Oklahoma universities

Adam Kissel

On April 21, I filed two civil rights complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). One is a Title VI complaint regarding racial and ethnic discrimination at the University of Oklahoma, and the other is a Title IX complaint regarding discrimination on the basis of sex at Oklahoma State University.

First, the Title VI violation came to my attention via a tweet from Mark Ousley. He provided an electronic flyer that was created by OU’s Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education and was allegedly sent to high school students by Norman Public Schools. The flyer offers “a taste of college life by spending a week on the OU-Norman campus” at the education college.

The problem is that the program is limited to students who are “Black, Latino/a/x, Indigenous or Native American, or [from a] historically marginalized and/or underrepresented group.” If you’re a non-Hispanic white American and cannot find some other way to show that people like you have been “marginalized and/or underrepresented,” you’re not eligible due to your race and ethnicity.

The program exists to “address the critical shortage of educators from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds in the state of Oklahoma and across the country,” which is an impermissible reason for such discrimination. Discriminatory racial classifications must meet a very high bar, such as redressing actual discrimination at the same institution in the recent past. Perhaps OU is willing to say that it has discriminated against all those races and ethnicities until recently, but this seems unlikely.

Additionally, presuming it is true that Norman Public Schools promoted this discriminatory program to high school students, this act also violates Title VI. Promoting a discriminatory program is itself discrimination, as OCR interprets civil rights laws. Accordingly, my civil rights complaint names both OU and Norman Public Schools.

Second, Oklahoma State University has just run a story on its STEM summer camps, which look great except for the problem that one of the camps is just “for girls.”

I tried asking OSU officials if boys were allowed at the Engineering Discovery for Girls Camp anyway, since sometimes a girl-oriented program is merely geared towards girls (using whatever stereotypes may or may not be true) but is actually open to all. I couldn’t get a straight answer.

One official wrote me, “Our intent is to increase the number of girls interested in engineering.” I appreciate the fast reply, but it didn’t answer the question. Besides, increasing the number of girls interested in engineering is an impermissible reason for discrimination on the basis of sex. Maybe OSU is willing to say that it has discriminated against women in STEM until recently, but this seems unlikely.

OSU could save face by claiming that although this camp has been open to boys all along, it had made the error of not effectively communicating nondiscrimination (which itself is a violation). Any reasonable boy would look at the camp “for girls” and understand that he is not going to be treated equally—unless OSU makes an explicit statement reassuring boys that OSU won’t discriminate in this program. The best way to do that is to change the name. “Especially for Girls” might pass muster, for example.

Universities in Oklahoma continue to flout civil rights by running discriminatory programs or advertising discriminatory scholarships. Violators risk losing many millions of dollars a year in federal funding. It’s time for universities’ general counsels to have some new conversations about compliance.

Adam Kissel


Adam Kissel is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education Programs in the Office of Postsecondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education. He previously served as vice president of programs for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, directing the program that defended the fundamental rights of students and faculty members across the country. He holds degrees from Harvard University and the University of Chicago.

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