DENVER — The University of Colorado at Boulder announced yesterday that it no longer would restrict an education course to minority and first-generation college students after receiving complaints that the restrictions violated equal-protection laws.
Educators had limited fall enrollment for the Friday section of “School and Society” to “students of color” and first-generation college students, saying the restriction offered “a much safer and open environment” in which to discuss issues of race, class and the sexes.
After three students threatened last week to take the university to court, however, Lorrie Shepard, dean of the School of Education, issued a “clarification” stating that the course would be open to all students, although “underrepresented” students were specifically encouraged to enroll.
“It is the intention of the School of Education to recruit students of color and first-generation college students to participate in a special section of [the course] for the purpose of creating a critical mass of such students,” said Lorrie Shepard, dean of the School of Education.
“However, the language of the e-mail which restricted enrollment exclusively on the basis of race was in error and is against university policy,” she said.
Robert Corry, a Denver lawyer representing the students, called the university’s decision “a total victory.”
“We’re very happy. All our demands have been satisfied,” Mr. Corry said. “It’s a victory for equal protection and nondiscrimination at CU.”
Mr. Corry had said he would file a federal lawsuit unless the university opened the class to all students. University officials had argued that the restriction complied with anti-discrimination laws because the same course also was offered to white students who were the first in their families to attend college.
They also stressed that the course was offered to all students on different days and times. But critics said that such a rationale mirrored the arguments used to justify “separate but equal” schools for black students in the decades before the civil rights era.
“We’ve seen this before — it was called ‘Brown versus the Board of Education,’” said Brad Jones, a Colorado senior, referring to the 1954 Supreme Court decision that struck down “separate but equal” educational facilities.
“School and Society” is mandatory for education majors, but the course is also popular among non-majors because it fulfills the university’s general graduation requirement for “culture and gender diversity.”
In her statement, Miss Shepard continued to stress the importance of creating a classroom environment welcoming to “students of diverse backgrounds.”
“Having a critical mass of first-generation and minority students in a class or group helps avoid the sense of isolation described by many students in these groups,” she said. “We hope that students of diverse backgrounds who choose this opportunity can engage the intellectual material of this course without distraction.”
Colorado began offering the restricted section last year, drawing 15 to 20 students. The university enrolls about 26,000 students each year, including graduate students, about 13 percent of whom are racial minorities.