Google and IBM are quietly backtracking in the wake of Washington Free Beacon reports about the companies capping the number of white and Asian students whom universities can nominate for prestigious research fellowships, which required that half of each school’s nominees be underrepresented minorities.
Both companies dropped the caps after lawyers told the Free Beacon that they likely violated civil rights laws. The fellowships, which provide graduate students with generous stipends and mentorship opportunities, still ask schools to nominate a diverse pool of candidates, but no longer limit how many whites and Asians can apply.
Just two weeks ago, Google insisted its nominating criteria for the Google Ph.D. Fellowship were legal, describing them as "extremely common" and maintaining that they followed "all relevant laws." Since then, however, the tech giant has replaced its diversity mandates with suggestions. "If more than two students are nominated," the new nominating criteria state, "we strongly encourage additional nominees who self-identify as a woman, Black / African descent, Hispanic / Latino / Latinx, Indigenous, and/or a person with a disability."
The original language stipulated that if a university "chooses to nominate more than two students … the third and fourth nominees must self-identify as a woman, Black / African descent, Hispanic / Latino / Latinx, Indigenous, and/or a person with a disability."
IBM, meanwhile, quietly dropped a requirement that half of the nominees for its Ph.D. fellowship program be "diversity candidates"—after the Free Beacon contacted IBM for comment—and replaced it with a request that schools "consider a diverse slate of candidates."
The original criteria posed legal problems for Google, IBM, and participating universities. Civil rights lawyers told the Free Beacon that the fellowships likely ran afoul of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which bans race discrimination in contracting, and Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans race discrimination at federally funded schools.
Asked whether the company had scrapped its diversity requirement over legal concerns, a Google spokesperson, Courtenay Mencini, attributed the change to a desire to "clarify our nomination criteria," adding that the company stands by its original statement.
A few schools have already been hit with civil rights complaints over their participation in the Google fellowship. On August 24, emails obtained by the Free Beacon show, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights received complaints against Harvard University, Princeton University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, New York University, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Johns Hopkins University, and Carnegie Mellon University.
The complaints allege that these schools are discriminating based on race and sex by nominating students for the fellowship, and ask that each one apologize for the "sexism and racism it has engaged in."
Google and IBM’s reversals come as other corporations face blowback for their own discriminatory policies, some of which are now the subject of major lawsuits. In the past two months alone, Amazon and American Express have both been hit by class action complaints alleging anti-white discrimination. Other companies like Coca-Cola have scrapped race-conscious policies amid legal threats from shareholders.
Some Fortune 500 companies are nonetheless standing by programs that many lawyers say are illegal. The Free Beacon reported in August that Pfizer bars whites and Asians from applying for its prestigious "Breakthrough Fellowship," which Gail Heriot, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, called a "clear case of liability" under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. When more outlets picked up the story, Pfizer followed Google’s lead and insisted it hadn’t done anything wrong.
"All of our actions comply fully with all U.S. employment laws," the pharmaceutical giant told Fox Business. "We create opportunities for people without taking them away from others."