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AAAS and EducationCounsel to Update Legal-Policy Guidance to Advance Campus Diversity Efforts

AAAS will join with EducationCounsel to update a handbook to guide institutions of higher education in expanding student and faculty diversity across higher education. | Syda Productions/Adobe Stock

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has been awarded a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to further efforts of higher education institutions to improve diversity, equity and inclusion outcomes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

The grant will enable AAAS to once again collaborate with EducationCounsel, a mission-focused education policy and law consulting firm, to update the 2010 “Handbook on Diversity and the Law: Navigating a Complex Landscape to Foster Greater Student and Faculty Diversity in Higher Education.” The first edition, also funded by a Sloan Foundation grant, focused on what can be done to advance student and faculty diversity in higher education STEM programs in a challenging legal landscape.

Pursuing many types of diversity is a high priority for institutions of higher education but achieving racial and gender diversity requires abiding by strict legal requirements. That legal landscape has become more complex since 2010, according to the team updating the handbook.

Forty years of Supreme Court admission-related decisions recognize that student body diversity promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students for a diverse workforce. The court’s most recent decisions, Fisher I and II in 2013 and 2016, continue to allow admissions programs to consider race when needed to create educational benefits of diversity. The Fisher cases, however, emphasize that institutions must produce evidence of the need to consider race to achieve authentic educational diversity interests. Fisher requires diversity programs relating to higher education admissions policies to abide by strict legal rules and base their admissions policies on evidence that can hold up under evaluation.

Recent years also have seen an expansion in the scope of court and administrative challenges to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts — from race in college admissions to race and gender in co-curricular programs and gender in mentoring, scholarship and community-building programs that specifically target women.

To help colleges and universities navigate such challenges, with an emphasis on STEM fields but applicable beyond, the handbook’s second edition and accompanying resources will address Supreme Court and other federal and state court decisions since the handbook’s last publication.

The updated handbook will explain related court cases and actions by the U.S. Department of Education and other agencies. It also will provide new and updated strategies to advance such policies while satisfying existing legal standards, preparing for future developments, and maintaining commitment to diversity efforts. The handbook will further offer practical guidance to make it easier for institutions to collect necessary documents and statistics to explain and defend admissions policies designed to advance diversity.

Research has long shown that diversity in the classroom and the workforce yields significant benefits, yet many STEM fields continue to pose systemic barriers to inclusion of people of color and women among other groups, leaving behind abundant intellectual talent for fields critical to quality of life, prosperity of society and well-being of the planet, said Shirley Malcom, director of the SEA Change program at AAAS, which engages colleges and universities to make structural changes to recruit, retain and support underrepresented groups in STEM.

If educational institutions cannot provide meaningful access to higher education in STEM to people whose participation has been limited, Malcom said, “America’s contributions to the international innovation engine, and our civic, economic and national security interests, will be sorely diminished.”

“The stakes are so high,” Malcom added.

With the $500,000 grant from the Sloan Foundation, AAAS and EducationCounsel aim to develop guidance and tools needed by institutions of higher education to maintain and increase their admissions, inclusion and equity programs in ways that work.

“While the legal landscape has become increasingly challenging, advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM remains doable if you do it right,” said Jamie Lewis Keith, partner at EducationCounsel and the editor and a co-author of the handbook’s first edition.

The handbook’s second edition and accompanying resources, expected in spring 2020, are intended to be useful to a broad range of faculty, staff and legal experts whose collaboration is key to enhancing and engaging diversity for success in education and research. This update is intended to help institutions understand the policies and laws that affect their diversity initiatives – as well as how they can govern and manage their efforts to produce impact and remain legally sustainable.

The updated handbook and related projects will complement other AAAS efforts that support diversity, equity and inclusion, including the SEA Change initiative. With the grant, AAAS and EducationCounsel efforts will be useful to many institutions, including those participating in SEA Change.

“We are enormously grateful to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for enabling AAAS and EducationCounsel to partner on this critical work to equip higher education institutions and their policy and legal leaders with guidance, strategies and practical tools they need to stay strongly committed,” said Lewis Keith. “A team-oriented focus on what can be done — and how to do it effectively, but wisely — will help institutions meet new and developing challenges successfully.”

With legal challenges “further narrowing the navigable waters” for colleges and universities, Malcom said, “helping institutions get it right is what we’re trying to do.”



Andrea Korte

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