Ohio University puts a pause on awarding scholarships that may use race as a factor

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Ohio University has paused awarding scholarships for which race may be a criteria in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year.

Ohio University's class gateway at College Green, photographed on May 2, 2019
Ohio University’s class gateway at College Green, photographed on May 2, 2019 [Michelle Rotuno-Johnson | WOUB]
The pause applies not only to scholarships that reference race but may also include those that reference gender or sexual orientation.

“In light of the Supreme Court ruling, we need to evaluate a small but important subset of gift agreements that reference protected classes to ensure they can be awarded lawfully,” Robin Oliver, the university’s vice president of communications and marketing, said in a written response to WOUB. “That review of language is in progress.”

Protected classes under federal anti-discrimination laws include race, gender, sexual orientation and age.

It’s unclear at this point how many scholarships will be affected by this decision.

The university announced the decision publicly on Thursday in a post on its website, but it had already made clear to at least some employees that its policy on scholarships was changing.

In a presentation a university administrator made in December on the 2024-25 scholarship process, one of the slides says “you may not make decisions based on an applicant’s race or ethnicity.”

The slide also notes that race and ethnicity data, along with gender and age, will not be shared with scholarship reviewers.

Eddith Dashiell, director of the university’s journalism school, heard about the university’s decision to put a hold on certain scholarships two weeks ago in a meeting with the school’s dean, Scott Titsworth.

She later wrote a letter to the dean opposing the decision, and this letter was posted by an anonymous user on the social media site reddit the day before the university issued its public statement.

“I sat in shock and disappointment during the Scripps College Dean’s directors meeting on February 8, 2024, when you shared with the directors the directive you and the other deans received that we will not be allowed to award any of our 2024-25 diversity scholarships from outside donors based on the Ohio attorney general’s interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admission v. Harvard.”

In its decision last June, the Supreme Court said that race could not be used as a factor in admissions decisions. The decision did not address scholarships.

A day later, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost issued a memo to the state’s universities and colleges in which he wrote that “institutions of higher education and institutional employees must immediately cease considering race when making admissions decisions.”

Yost also noted that employees “will face personal risk should they consider race during the admissions process,” meaning they can be sued and be held personally liable for any damages. Yost’s memo does not mention scholarships.

Titsworth was not available to confirm exactly what he and other university deans were told about the hold on certain scholarships and the reasons given for this.

Oliver told WOUB that following the Supreme Court’s decision, “we have received and sought out continual guidance from a number of expert resources across higher education. We have also … received guidance from the state.”

The university’s scholarship decision, she said, “is a result of guidance from a wide variety of sources.”

In her letter to the dean, Dashiell argues the decision is “a political move — not a legal one.”

In an interview with WOUB, Dashiell described the university’s actions as “proactive obedience” given that as of yet there is no court decision or legislation prohibiting using race as a factor in scholarship decisions.

Dashiell said she does not yet know how many scholarships will be affected by the university’s decision. The university provides a list each year of scholarships that can be awarded and she hasn’t received this year’s list yet.

But there are several journalism scholarships that total many thousands of dollars she now suspects will not make the list. These include scholarships from the Scripps Howard Fund that are intended to promote diversity and inclusion in the media. Dashiell said Scripps Howard is among the top donors to Ohio University and a top supporter of the Scripps College of Communication and the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.

In a prepared statement, Liz Carter, president and CEO of the Scripps Howard Fund, said of the university’s decision:

“Like many organizations and businesses, the Scripps Howard Fund is still assessing how the Supreme Court ruling will affect our work. We believe there is still a great need in this country to create more equitable access to higher education, and therefore we remain deeply committed to supporting college journalism students from backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented in newsrooms.”

In its announcement, the university said its decision in no way changes our values as an institution, which include a commitment to fostering an inclusive University community where all students — regardless of race, background, gender, religion, or disability — are welcome and feel a sense of belonging.

Dashiell wrote in her letter that the university’s action in this case “suggests that any such ‘commitment’ applies only when it is easy to do so.” Scholarships, she told WOUB, play a critical role in attracting minority students to a part of the state that is predominantly white.

“If the university is committed to getting more students of color to Athens, they have to find ways to want them to come,” she said. “And the diversity scholarships were designed not to shut white students out, but to encourage black students to want to come to Ohio University.”