DEI Claims in Higher Education: Why Control over the Claims Resolution Process Matters and What Universities Need to Know to Maximize Their Influence over the Outcome

Natasha Romagnoli and Anna K. Milunas

When more than just university dollars are at stake, understanding and maximizing control over the claims resolution process in advance is essential for higher education policyholders.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (“DEI”) have always been controversial topics at colleges and universities, but the last several years have seen DEI debates amplified to the greatest degree as more educational institutions take open and affirmative steps toward addressing discrimination and intolerance on campus.

At a time when issues of racial injustice and implicit bias are so much in the forefront of the national conscious, even nascent allegations of student or employee discrimination (or reverse discrimination) can subject institutions to instantaneous and major public relations (“PR”) crises that come at a great cost to a university’s reputation, which is paramount to its continued success.

Negative PR, however, is not the only thing schools must contend with in this new environment. Claims that universities and colleges have violated federal or state anti-discrimination laws, or failed to adhere to their own anti-discrimination or DEI policies, are now more than ever resulting in formal lawsuits, in addition to complaints filed with state anti-discrimination commissions and other similar oversight bodies.

Consider Smith College, for example, where a former employee plans to sue the school—in addition to filing a claim with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, for creating a “racially hostile workplace” after Smith mandated anti-bias training for its white employees in the aftermath of an alleged July 2018 racial profiling complaint by a student. Or a community college in San Diego, where five current and former Black employees are suing for a “palpable climate of anti-Blackness at Southwestern College.” DePaul University was sued twice in six months by Black professors for alleged discrimination in the form of “irregularities,” “increased scrutiny,” and “microaggressions” in the tenure track evaluation process that violated DePaul’s anti-discrimination policies. A former employee of Cal State University, Northridge also filed a lawsuit against the university for discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and failure to accommodate a disability. Further, in May 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Indira Talwani permitted a breach of contract and section 1981 claim by a former student disciplined by Harvard University for sexual assault to move forward against the university on grounds that the university racially discriminated against the student in its handling of a Title IX complaint.

These claims come at a significant cost to educational institutions—not only in terms of immediate crisis management response and defense costs—but in settlements, which are often expensive, multifaceted, and even at times, unconventional. The University of Iowa, for example, reportedly agreed to pay a former field hockey coach and her partner a total of $6.5 million to settle two discrimination lawsuits. New York University recently reached a settlement that reportedly involved an agreement to effectuate new anti-discrimination policies and training, in addition to maintaining records of discrimination complaints and the university’s response to them.

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