Feds open investigation after complaint about UW-Madison fellowship for students of color

The inquiry comes in response to a complaint from a group that's targeted affirmative action programs across the country

Green grass and a blue sky surround Bascom Hall.
The sun shines on Bascom Hill on Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, at UW-Madison in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into a fellowship program for students of color at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

The federal inquiry comes in response to a complaint from a group that’s targeted race-conscious scholarship and grant programs across the country.

An anti-affirmative group called the Equal Protection Project filed the complaint in January, alleging that a scholarship program at UW’s flagship campus violates the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment because the program excludes white students.

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The Creando Comunidad: Community Engaged Black, Indigenous, and People of Color program launched in the 2023-24 academic year, and is available to undergraduates from a “historically underrepresented racial or ethnic group or community,” according to archived and current information from the university’s website.

It provides a $500 scholarship, as well as mentorship opportunities.

Participants must complete a community engagement project, and they must attend seven cohort meetings throughout the school year, according to the complaint and the university’s website.

“Their mission is to center and empower the strengths of BIPOC undergraduate students partaking in critical community-engaged work as well as provide opportunities for community building, collaboration, support, and personal/professional development,” an announcement posted to the university’s website in August said.

In its complaint, the Equal Protection Project cited last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision, which found that race-based college admission programs violate the 14th amendment.

In a letter this week, federal officials confirmed they’ve launched an investigation into whether the program conflicts with the federal Civil Rights Act.

“Please understand that opening an investigation does not mean that OCR has made a decision about the complaint,” the letter from the department’s Office of Civil Rights said. “During the investigation, OCR is neutral; OCR will collect and analyze the evidence it needs in order to make a decision about the complaint.”

UW-Madison spokesperson Kelly Tyrrell said the university is complying with the federal investigation. She said this year’s class of 14 fellows remains active.

“The university is in the process of evaluating the program and making modifications for the next cohort,” Tyrrell said in a statement.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.