Case Status: Case settled on favorable terms

Swanigan v. University of Connecticut

  • Federal District Courts

CIR Challenges Race-Based Scholarship

The Center for Individual Rights filed a lawsuit challenging the University of Connecticut’s use of race in awarding scholarships. CIR represented Pamela Swanigan, a graduate student in English at UConn, who was not allowed to compete for a highly prestigious, merit-based scholarship despite being the top applicant the year she applied. Although the school told Swanigan she had received a merit-based scholarship, in fact and without her knowledge, it had swapped her award for one in a less prestigious and largely segregated scholarship program intended to increase “diversity.”

The suit alleged that Swanigan was routed into the less prestigious award solely because of her race — she is both African American and white.  Not only was she deprived of the opportunity to compete for an academic award that would have benefited her career, the diversity scholarship did not provide funds for off-campus dissertation work, an option that Swanigan wanted and thought she was getting.  As a result of UConn’s deception, Swanigan lost the scholarship and had to work multiple jobs to finish her degree.

Pamela Swanigan applied for admission to the University’s doctoral program in English in the fall of 2008.  The Director of Graduate Studies in the English Department later wrote to Swanigan that she was “a stronger candidate that year than anyone,” and that he and others were thinking at the time that they “were quite likely to lose [her] to some place like Yale.”

In an acceptance letter to Swanigan, the Director of Graduate Studies offered her a merit-based scholarship called the “Vice Provost’s Award for Excellence,” which, he wrote, was a “highly significant honor” that featured an “annual reception held for recipients.” The Director added that the “honors and accomplishments [of the recipients would] be publicized statewide when appropriate.”

Swanigan was pleased and excited by this recognition of her academic excellence, and decided to enroll in the program.  However, the checks Swanigan received each semester did not come from the Vice Provost’s award.  It turned out that no such program as the “Vice Provost’s Award for Excellence” existed at the time she applied.

Scholarship Bait and Switch

Pamela Swanigan

Two years after enrolling, and still believing she was receiving the “Vice Provost’s Award for Excellence,” Swanigan looked into the possibility of finishing her degree outside Connecticut.  She sought to confirm her understanding that she could continue to receive the “Vice Provost’s Award for Excellence” while working off-campus.  She discovered for the first time that she had been receiving the “Multicultural Scholars Program” (“MSP”) award all along and that, unlike what she had been told about the non-existent “Vice Provost’s Award for Excellence,” it did not provide funding for non-resident students.

Many top universities offer diversity scholarships which are awarded on the basis of race.  While the Supreme Court has said that race may be a plus factor in admissions decisions, it has never said race can be the basis for scholarship awards once an applicant has been admitted.  A scholarship awarded on the basis of race inevitably stigmatizes talented minority applicants, who come to be recognized for their race rather than their considerable academic achievements.

As it turned out, the University did offer a merit-based award at the time she applied called the “Outstanding Scholars Program” (“OSP”). But because officials decided to nominate her for the MSP award, Swanigan’s nomination for the OSP was withdrawn — even though she was the strongest candidate that year.  Other non-minority students in her program were nominated for and received the OSP.  Swanigan decided to attend the University based on the University’s offer that she would receive a merit-based award and believes that the honor of having received a prestigious scholarship like the OSP would have benefited her greatly in her later career.

Pamela Swanigan commented, “My goal is to ensure that students are treated as individuals regardless of race and regardless of other efforts to promote racial diversity.  I wanted — and still want — to compete on the basis of my academic abilities just like any other student.”

The suit asked for a ruling prohibiting the University from discriminatorily nominating students for its diversity and other scholarship awards, as well as damages in an amount to be proven at trial.

On October 16, 2015, CIR reached a favorable settlement with UConn. The agreement required that for seven years, the school would provide the average GPA and GRE scores for the recipients of OSP awards and two fellowship programs, as well as a list of the demographic breakdown of the recipients; allow students to affirmatively choose for which scholarship programs they would like to apply; and ensure that when selecting graduate fellowships recipients on the basis of commitment to diversity, the applicants commitment should be determined without regard to that person’s race, ethnicity, sex or sexual orientation.

Lastly, the school had to provide a written letter acknowledging that Swanigan’s achievements had earned her the prestigious merit-based OSP award and that she had been given the MSP award without asking her preference.

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