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UConn grad student files anti-affirmative action claim over scholarship

By Marissa Piccolo
On June 16, 2014

An anti-affirmative action case was filed against UConn, raising controversial questions about multicultural scholarships and the equal protection guarantee of the U.S. constitution.   

On June 3rd UConn graduate student and English Ph.D. candidate Pamela Swanigan filed a complaint in theUnited States District Court of New Haven against the university, claiming that her Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated.

Represented by The Center for Individual RightsWashington, D.C., Swanigan alleges she was denied access to a merit scholarship due to her race, as well as being deceived by the university.

            According to the complaint filed, Swanigan, who is half-white and half-black, was promised the “Vice Provost’s Award for Excellence”for meritif she were to enroll in the university. In a letter Swanigan received from former Director of Graduate Studies in the English Department Gregory Semenza she was told “the Graduate School considers the receipt of the Vice Provost Award for Excellence to be a highly significant honor.”

            Yet in the Spring of 2011 when Swanigan contemplated moving out of the state to finish her dissertation, she discovered that her scholarship would no longer be awarded if she moved. She learned that for the entire time she was attending UConn, she was formally enrolled as a member of the Multicultural Scholars Program, not the Outstanding Scholars Program.

            “UConn defrauded Ms. Swanigan by luring her into the University with the promise that she would receive a (non-existent) prestigious merit-based award that recognized her academic excellence, whereas it secretly substituted a race-based award that subordinated any recognition of merit to competition within the much narrower pool of potential minority applicants,” the complaint reads.

“Pam was not allowed to compete for a merit based scholarship because of her race,” said Swanigan’s laywer and president of CIR Terrence J. Pell, Esq., “This is wrong and has harmed her, and also happens to be unconstitutional.”

The Vice Provost Award heavily influenced Swanigan’s decision to attend UConn. Swanigan believed a prestigious merit-based scholarship would help her in the future, especially on her resumé when competing on the job-market.

Swanigan’s case will question the legal authority of universities awarding scholarships based on race. Last year in the case of Fisher vs. University of Texas, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that race may be a positive factor in admissions for the purpose of achieving a diverse student body.

“The Supreme Court never said that the school may award scholarships on the basis of race or judge based on race once admission has been made,” said Pell. A “two-tiered scholarship system” cannot be permitted by a public university, Pell said.

“In effect, the defendant has created two separate and unequal systems for determining graduate school financial awards,” the complaint said. “Racial minority applicants are shunted into the MSP whose “multicultural” appellation is a euphemism meaning in practice that minorities cannot be considered for more prestigious and competitive award.”

The next step in the lawsuit is a response from UConn, due 20 days after the complaint was formally served, on or before July 2nd. The case is being handled by the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General.

“UConn is reviewing the lawsuit carefully and will respond as appropriate in its court filing, although the University can’t discuss the case in more detail right now as litigation is pending,” said university spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said.





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