State law threatens gender-equity programs

The Nov. 4 decision by Nebraska voters to ban affirmative action could derail programs designed to increase the participation of women in technology related courses at colleges and universities in the state, Nebraska education officials say.

Nebraska’s Southeast Community College, for instance, has reportedly made significant strides in boosting the enrollment of women in technology-related courses—a goal that is considered important not only to women, but also to high-tech employers seeking diversity in their field. But eliminating affirmative action could keep enrollment in technical classes almost exclusively male, college officials warn.

Nebraska’s educational institutions, as well as its city and county government agencies, are beginning to scour their programs to see if they violate a ban on race- and gender-based affirmative action approved by 58 percent of voters last week.

A similar affirmative-action ban was narrowly defeated in Colorado. 

The ban might force Southeast Community College—which has three campuses and more than 10,000 students—to cease or change its partnership with a national association that promotes equity for women in community colleges, said Jose J. Soto, the college’s vice president of affirmative action. And a program designed to boost female enrollment in technology classes might have to be dropped as well.

The college’s Milford campus is dedicated primarily to technical courses such as building-construction technology, automotive technology, and auto-collision repair, said Southeast spokesman Stu Osterthun. In recent years, college recruiters have increased the number of female students on the Milford campus. Women now make up about 10 percent of the 740 students on campus, Osterthun said.

One of the ways the college has recruited women is by hosting an annual "Women in Technology Day," where women can learn about Southeast’s 20 technical programs and apply for scholarships.

"We try to have events such as this to let female students know that this might be a male-dominated industry, but there’s room for you, too," Osterthun said. But the annual event might have to be axed after the Nov. 4 vote, officials said.

A spokeswoman for the American Association of University Women said the affirmative action ban could shrink the pool of qualified candidates in a number of fields and "reduce jobs, hurt businesses, and squelch educational opportunity just when our economy needs them the most."

"We believe it is bad for Nebraskans – not just women and minorities, but all citizens," AAUW director of public policy Lisa M. Maatz said in a statement. "Nebraska was unfortunately the target of out-of-state forces seeking to divide communities and deny equal opportunities to our friends and neighbors. Affirmative action has opened a lot of doors for women, and AAUW is very concerned that enactment of [the ballot initiative] will likely slam them shut."

Osterthun said Southeast Community College also would have to "adjust" Soto’s job title in the wake of the affirmative-action ban.

At the University of Nebraska, administrators are expected to review a wide range of programs and policies aimed at boosting diversity on campus, including a math camp for high school girls, Native American Day, the recruitment of foreign students, and a law-college policy that uses race as a factor in deciding which students to admit.

"We know we need to look at programs where race or gender or national origin are involved," university President J.B. Milliken said.

The Nebraska constitutional amendment prohibits public agencies from giving preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity when hiring and performing such tasks as awarding contracts and granting scholarships.

The League of Nebraska Municipalities is reviewing how the amendment might affect hundreds of local governments across the state, Executive Director Lynn Rex said. Some federal grants, such as those for affordable housing, are tied to affirmative action, she said.

"There’s the potential for large consequences that we just don’t know yet," Rex said.

Milliken and other university officials are concerned that Nebraska’s status as one of a handful of states to pass an affirmative-action ban could project a cold image to women and minorities, hindering recruitment efforts. Similar measures were previously approved in California, Michigan, and the state of Washington.

"It’s important that we, while complying with the law, make every effort to provide broad access to the University of Nebraska," he said.

Like Milliken, Soto feels the amendment won’t dismantle all efforts to increase diversity.

"Affirmative action is something often done on the front end of the hiring process to make sure you have a job description that doesn’t limit candidates, and that you have a recruitment process," Soto said. "Ninety percent of affirmative action has nothing to do with … using race or gender to make a hiring decision. It’s to provide open access to opportunities."

Ward Connerly, the black businessman and former University of California regent who orchestrated the effort to ban affirmative action in Nebraska, said the win could give momentum to his state-by-state campaign against affirmative action. Opponents of affirmative action, such as those at Connerly’s American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI), argue the program is effectively a moratorium on the recognition of achievment by women and minorities and discrimates against whites and men. "Race has no place in American life or law" is the motto of ACRI.

The Election Day victory for Connerly and his supporters in Nebraska is being challenged. Opponents of the ban have filed a lawsuit arguing that petition signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot were gathered using a "pattern of fraud and illegality." If successful, the lawsuit could invalidate the results of last week’s vote.


Southeast Community College

University of Nebraska

League of Nebraska Municipalities

American Civil Rights Institute