How to Encourage Diversity—and Avoid Lawsuits

Broadening participation in science without getting sued is a challenge for U.S. universities trying to recruit and retain underrepresented minority and women students and faculty members. But a new handbook on what’s working for some institutions should help.

"It's deeply substantive from a lawyer's point of view but tied very specifically to effective university programs that actually exist," says Jamie Keith, vice president and general counsel of the University of Florida, Gainesville, about the handbook. "These are the ingredients of effective programs that can be designed in a legally sustainable way."

A joint effort by AAAS (which publishes Science) and the Association of American Universities, Navigating a Complex Landscape to Foster Greater Faculty and Student Diversity in Higher Education examines federal laws such as the Equal Protection Act and Title IX of the 1972 Educational Amendments and discusses dozens of relevant cases in the courts. The legal landscape can be treacherous, says Keith. "It's much easier for lawyers to say, ‘You can't do that because you're going to get sued,’ " she says. "We need them to be problem solvers and focus on what can be done."

The handbook also highlights strategies that Keith calls "low-hanging fruit we're not taking full advantage of." An emphasis on finding persons with "multicultural skills" who have “scaled barriers themselves and opened barriers for others," she says, would contribute to the type of diverse environment that universities are seeking without invoking legal challenges.

The handbook also offers advice on day-to-day practices that could help protect universities in the case of a lawsuit. "Documenting what one is doing and [marking] progress over some baseline" allows institutions to make a stronger case in court, says Daryl Chubin, founding director of the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity. It’s more effective than “anecdotes alone and sheer rhetoric," he adds.

Mackenzie Wilfong, director of affirmative action at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, says she welcomes the guidance. "I think the handbook will help us analyze what we're doing and plan expansion in a thoughtful and methodological way," she says. "Because the handbook is so research-based, we can make really good decisions on how we want to spend our time and resources."