In late December, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights received two complaints against a total of seven identity-based programs associated with UNC.
More specifically, the complaints were against programs that encourage the participation of specific demographics — primarily women and students of color. These complaints alleged that certain UNC programs are in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
The complaints were filed by Mark Perry, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan-Flint and a senior fellow at Do No Harm — a group of professionals that seeks to “protect healthcare from a radical, divisive, and discriminatory ideology."
Perry has filed suits at almost 600 other universities.
Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or national origin from organizations that receive federal funding — of which UNC is one. Similarly, Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex from those same federally-funded institutions.
Perry’s initial complaint, filed on Dec. 19, focused on the Fellowship for Exploring Research in Nutrition, or FERN, which is sponsored by UNC’s Global Food Research Program. It alleged that the program violated Title IX because the website criteria specifies applicants must be students of color.
After the complaint was filed, the website was soon after changed to include all undergraduate students, and Perry withdrew his original complaint.
UNC Media Relations said in a statement that the eligibility criteria on the FERN webpage did not accurately reflect the University's commitment to inclusion and has since been corrected.
“Carolina remains committed to an inclusive and equitable community for all. A diverse student body is vital to fostering academic excellence, helping to broaden understanding among people of all backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences, spurring innovation and preparing engaged citizens and future leaders,” Media Relations said.
Perry said he is now “a full-time civil rights activist,” hoping to raise awareness about Title VI and Title IX compliance in universities around the country. He said that universities have a double standard and are selective in their enforcement of these laws.
“I'm just trying to hold universities accountable to their legal obligation, and also their moral and ethical obligation, to treat students as individuals and as members of groups and not discriminate on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin,” Perry said.
A week after the initial complaint, Perry filed a second complaint with the Office for Civil Rights, this time listing six more alleged violations of both Title VI and Title IX.
Among the programs listed in the complaint was a scholarship fund for Black students featured on the UNC General Alumni Association’s website, a well-being initiative for women faculty of color in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy and a student meet-and-greet specifically for students of color in the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Erika Richmond, a postdoctoral research associate with the UNC Center for Civil Rights, said that in her opinion, many of the programs do not violate Title IX or Title VI because they are funded by private individuals.
For instance, Richmond pointed to the UNC General Alumni Association scholarship program. Though it is advertised by alumni relations, it is based on endowments made by private individuals. Because of this, it may not violate Title IX, she said.
She said that even federally-funded programs are not always black and white.
“What would be considered illegal would be an all-out prohibition, like this is just for women, this is just for people of color,” she said. “But, a lot of the language of these things are preference towards women, preference towards people of color, which means that if you are not a woman or a person of color, you could still apply and so, therefore, it's not exclusionary.”
Though UNC has yet to respond to Perry directly, the second complaint has been acknowledged by the Office for Civil Rights.
The next step, Richmond explained, would be an investigation into the complaint followed by a decision about whether or not discrimination has occurred. If discrimination is found, the discriminating party would then either work with the Civil Rights Office to correct the violation or be referred to the Department of Justice.
In the end, Richmond said that the complaints were a "smokescreen," distracting from a discussion of the bigger issues, like the difficulties women and students of color face in educational institutions.
“There's so few opportunities for women and people of color that these programs need to exist in order to give them entrance into certain professions or once they get into these professions to make sure that they're supported and that there's retention,” she said.
At time of publication, there is no timeline for a response from the Office for Civil Rights.
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