Lindsay France (UREL)/Courtesy of Cornell University

A Cornell alumnus filed a lawsuit against Cornell Tech and the City University of New York.

April 8, 2024

New Lawsuit Against Cornell Tech Claims Diversity Program Unfairly Discriminates Against Men

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On March 8, Justin Gaffney Samuels ’10 filed a lawsuit against Cornell Tech and the City University of New York over alleged illegal discrimination in the admissions policy of Break Through Tech.

The program, a national initiative launched in collaboration with Cornell Tech and CUNY, offers computing and artificial intelligence training as a pathway to careers in technology for women and non-binary undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds.

“As a Black man with a deep interest in technology, I was particularly interested in the opportunities offered by the Break Through Tech programs,” Samuels wrote in the official complaint. “However, upon reviewing the program’s website, I was dismayed to discover that I am precluded from applying due to its discriminatory policies.”

Break Through Tech’s mission statement says that the program “operates at the intersection of academia and industry to create new pathways into tech degrees and careers for women and non-binary undergraduates from diverse backgrounds.”

Samuels claimed that Break Through Tech’s admission policy violates Title IX, prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded institutions. 

“The stated mission [of Break Through Tech] is contrary to what is in the law. They are creating new categories of discrimination against men,” Samuels said in an interview with The Sun. “Cornell gets federal funding. They cannot give one group preference over another.”

He also said that the policy violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the New York State Human Rights Law and the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

Section 1981 of The Civil Rights Act of 1866, which prohibits discrimination based on race, skin color or ethnicity when creating and enforcing contracts, was cited by conservative litigant Edward Blum in the landmark United States Supreme Court case Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, ruled in June 2023. The decision struck down race-based affirmative action policies in college admissions. 

Samuels criticized sex and race-based affirmative action programs, saying they award aid based on “identity politics” rather than merit.

He also claimed Break Through Tech’s admission preference for women and non-binary applicants is illegal under the Supreme Court’s decision. 

Prof. Sheri Lynn Johnson, law, who teaches courses in constitutional and criminal law, told The Sun she disagreed with Samuels. Johnson said that racial generalizations are subject to strict scrutiny, the highest standard of review that a court will use to decide if discrimination is constitutional. 

However, Johnson said that gender-related admissions preferences like that of Break Through Tech are judged under intermediate scrutiny, which is a less rigorous standard than strict scrutiny. 

“The Supreme Court decided that diversity generally … may well be an important governmental interest,” Johnson said. “The standard for gender classification is more lenient than the one for race classification.”

Johnson also said that Break Through Tech may use its admissions policy to address past societal discrimination against women and non-binary individuals in technology. She said the Supreme Court has previously held that addressing historical discrimination passes intermediate scrutiny.

Students for Fair Admissions doesn’t change anything with respect to gender classifications,” Johnson said. “I don’t see that therefore, Students for Fair Admissions speaks to [Break Through Tech] at all.”

Multiple representatives from Break Through Tech and Lindsey Knewstub, a representative of Cornell Media Relations, declined to comment on the legality and merits of diversity initiatives in technology and artificial intelligence education.

Samuels noted that he filed a separate retaliation lawsuit against Barnard College in July 2023. He alleged that he was denied admission to a screenwriting workshop at a film festival run by Barnard in retaliation for a complaint he filed against the college’s admissions policy, which is exclusive to women. 

Samuels said that economist Mark Perry motivated him to begin filing discrimination lawsuits against exclusive admissions policies at higher education institutions. Perry has filed hundreds of federal complaints against academic programming and scholarships restricted to applicants from a specific sex or racial background. 

Though it may take a year or more for the courts to determine the outcome of the Cornell Tech case, Samuels anticipates that they will likely rule in his favor, finding illegal sex discrimination within the Break Through Tech admissions process.

Johnson said that Samuels may have standing in seeking personal damages. However, she said that it would be unlikely for the court to rule to alter Break Through Tech’s gender-related admission policy, particularly if the gender classification in the program’s policy serves to compensate for past discrimination.

“The Supreme Court has said that correcting for past societal discrimination is an important governmental interest, which is enough to satisfy the intermediate scrutiny standard that applies to gender,” Johnson said. 

Correction, April 8, 6:55 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Title IX was from the Civil Rights Act of 1866. It is from the Education Amendments of 1972.