With the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress passed sweeping legislation to combat discrimination, and several Titles of the Act apply to colleges and universities. Title VI prohibits any institution that receives federal funds from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin.
Since almost every institution of higher learning accepts federal funds (in the form of grants, student loans disbursed to students, or other funding) they are subject to Title VI. Almost all school districts come within Title VI as well. Title VI reaches state colleges and universities in all 50 states, 17,000 local education systems, 4,700 private colleges and universities, and 10,000 proprietary institutions in addition to other educational or quasi-educational institutions that receive federal money.
All operations that contribute to education—such as admissions, recruitment, financial aid, teaching, student services, counseling and guidance, discipline, grading, recreation, athletics, housing, and employment—must be free of discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
The law is designed to combat intentional discrimination, both direct and indirect. An example of direct discrimination would be expressly barring services to minorities. One common example of indirect discrimination is selective discipline, such as privileging non-minority students who committed a given offense while subjecting minority students to harsh discipline for the same offense.
A school may be intentionally discriminating even with policies that show no bad faith, ill will, or evil motive. The intent to discriminate need not be the sole reason for a policy. Discrimination occurs when the school adopts a policy, at least in part, because of the negative effect it has on people identified by race, color, or national origin.
Title VI will even prohibit policies fashioned to appear neutral, but which nevertheless discriminate. A school can be ordered to scrap a policy unless it can show a legitimate, nondiscriminatory objective and no other available alternatives to a policy that has a different impact on students due to their race, color, or national origins.
The law also forbids retaliation against anyone who files a Title VI complaint or challenges a school for Title VI violations. Many cases have found that schools and employers may not retaliate against those who bring Title VI complaints, even where the initial complaints have been found to have no merit.
A school can also be held responsible for sitting idly by while discrimination occurs on campus, even if the school does not actively create the policies that enforce or encourage the discrimination – say in a school club or Greek organization. Where the school knows or should know that the environment on campus has become hostile to students or employees on account of their race, color, or national origin, but deliberately does nothing, the school is liable and can be sued.
There are also other ways to bring pressure to bear on a school to end discrimination under Title VI. The Office for Civil Rights enforces Title VI in the education context. Given the vast number of educational institutions covered by the law, however, the OCR often retreats into more of an advisory role.
The OCR will investigate and resolve complaints related to Title VI violations. But neither students nor employees need to wait for the OCR. They can also sue in federal court under Title VI if they are victims of intentional discrimination.