The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is one of the most well-known and far-reaching contemporary civil rights statutes enacted by Congress. The act’s impact on colleges and universities has been immense in that it prohibits discrimination against students, employees, and prospective employees or applicants on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex.
A decade after Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka (1954), and following on the heels of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, his successor Lyndon B. Johnson worked with a wide array of civic groups to ensure that civil rights for African Americans and other minority groups would be codified into American law. Following a 54-day filibuster in the Senate, Congress approved the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. Responding with haste, a mere five hours after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, President Johnson signed this monumental bill into law.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 consists of 11 extensive titles that have impacted virtually every aspect of American life. Insofar as the act includes titles with special relevance for colleges and universities, this entry reviews the four titles that are most germane to higher education, highlighting how the law has fulfilled its mission of prohibiting discrimination in public facilities, in government, and in employment.
Title II addresses injunctive relief against discrimination in places of public accommodation. This title, in its provisions against discrimination, made it possible for minority groups to travel and have access to the same accommodations as Whites. As an extension of Title II, university cafeterias and dining halls had to be made open to all students regardless of their race. As with other provisions of the law, aggrieved parties can look to the Attorney General for relief or can file private claims for relief.
Title III concerns the desegregation of public facilities. Pursuant to Title II, the attorney general of the United States has the authority to initiate legal proceedings on behalf of a person or a group of persons who were denied the use of public facilities and who were unable to bring suit against their states due to the lack of funds necessary to obtain effective legal representation. The attorney general can thus file suit in the appropriate federal trial court. As a result of Title III, minority students cannot be denied opportunities to live in on-campus or off-campus housing and facilities.
Title VI covers the prohibition against discrimination in programs receiving federal financial assistance. Titles VI and VII are the two most litigated titles of the Civil Rights Act, producing many changes in the operations of colleges and universities. According to Title VI, “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in any program receiving Federal financial assistance” (42 U.S.C. § 2000d).
The reach of Title VI is coextensive with judicial interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Guardians Association v. Civil Service Commission of the City of New York, 1983). However, even though the Fourteenth Amendment is triggered by state action, Title VI does have a practical effect on private institutions of higher education to the extent that their students qualify to receive federal financial assistance in the form of federal loans and grants. In this way, Title VI plays an important role in extending the protections of the Equal Protection Clause to private institutions of higher education. However, if private institutions do not receive any federal benefits whatsoever, Title VI has no impact on their operations.
The first of two enforcement provisions in Title VI authorize the federal government to threaten the withdrawal of financial assistance if federal officials or the courts determine that institutional officials engaged in unlawful discrimination. The second enforcement method is for individuals to sue colleges and universities, even though there is no specific language in the act granting awards of monetary damages. Moreover, although Title VI does not contain a provision for monetary awards, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted it as allowing an implied right of private action for damages, meaning that plaintiffs can recover compensatory but not punitive damages (Barnes v. Gorman, 2002).
Arguably, the impact of Title VI has been most significant in cases seeking to ensure equal educational opportunities for students of all races. To this end, the Supreme Court has ruled that officials at institutions of higher education may not employ racial classifications in student admissions unless their plans are narrowly tailored to achieve compelling governmental interests.
The three most significant cases dealing with racial classifications in student admissions are Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003). In Bakke, the Court decided that even though the consideration of race was constitutionally permissible in admissions, the use of racial quotas such as the one employed by university officials in this case violated Title VI. More recently, in Grutter and Gratz, the Court reached mixed results in disputes involving racial classifications in admissions policies at the University of Michigan. In Grutter, the Court ruled that the use of race in the law school’s policy was acceptable, because the policy helped maintain student body diversity—a compelling state interest—and was sufficiently narrowly tailored to meet this goal. Conversely, in Gratz, the Court struck down an undergraduate admissions policy as impermissible, because in assigning an automatic 20 points, the equivalent of one-fifth of the required points for admission, to members of the underrepresented minority groups of African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, it was insufficiently narrowly tailored in pursuit of achieving a compelling governmental interest.
Title VII, which covers equal employment opportunities, forbids employers, public and private, with 15 or more employees from discriminating against employees and prospective employees or applicants on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex. Title VII applies to hiring, discharge, transfer, promotion, demotion, compensation, and “terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” while also addressing other employment issues, including sexual harassment, maternity and religious leave, and retaliation for filing Title VII complaints. At the same time, Title VII does permit officials at colleges or universities to employ individuals on the basis of sex, national origin, or religion if such characteristics are a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) necessary for their normal operations.
Title VII is enforced through the auspices of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In other words, before aggrieved parties may file suits, they must exhaust administrative remedies by filing claims with the EEOC within 180 days from the time the alleged discriminatory acts occurred. Once employers receive actual notice, and unless the parties reach a conciliation agreement or the EEOC files suit against the educational institution, its officials must notify the complainants, who then have 90 days to bring civil actions. Pursuant to Title VII, courts can award an array of remedies ranging from reinstatement to back pay and attorney fees.
Perhaps the two most significant employment areas in which the Supreme Court has applied Title VII in higher education are sexual harassment and religion. In relying on judicially created principles that evolved in the noneducational workplace in the fight against racial discrimination, the Supreme Court developed a three-step test of shifting burdens and order of proof for Title VII cases. It is interesting to note that the Court has not addressed a Title VII case involving discrimination based on race in a college or university setting.
As to religion, Title VII recognizes the authority of religious officials to operate institutions in a manner consistent with bona fide occupational qualifications that include hiring members of their own faiths in key positions. For example, in Amos v. Corporation of Presiding Bishop (1987) the Supreme Court upheld the authority of institutional officials who dismissed a building engineer who worked in a gymnasium open to the public because he failed to meet the church’s religious “temple recommend” requirement.
In reviewing a wide array of claims involving university employees, because students are covered by Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, the courts have been of the opinion that colleges and universities can be liable for same-sex sexual harassment; quid pro quo or literally “this for that” sexual harassment; and hostile or abusive work environment harassment.
In sum, the antidiscrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have had a profound impact on the operations of American colleges and universities on a multitude of levels. In the wake of the many changes that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has effected in higher education, it may be hoped that campuses have become more open learning and working environments in which all are free to interact for their mutual benefit and that of the wider society.
- Davis, D. D., III. (2005). Feedback loop: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its progeny. St. Louis University Law Review, 49, 981–1005.
- Ishimaru, S. J. (2005). Fulfilling the promise of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. University of Memphis Law Review, 26, 25–38.
- Amos v. Corporation of Presiding Bishop, 483 U.S. 327 (1987).
- Barnes v. Gorman, 536 U.S. 181 (2002).
- Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
- Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq.
- Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003).
- Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003).
- Guardians Association v. Civil Service Commission of the City of New York, 463 U.S. 582 (1983).
- Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978).
- United States Code, as cited.