A civil rights organization has renewed its request for an investigation of Missouri State University and its no-white-males-allowed business boot camp, after the MSU president told reporters the institution did nothing wrong.
Meanwhile, a white male disabled veteran came forward to tell the Springfield Daily Citizen that he began enrolling in the boot camp but didn’t finish signing up because it expressly excluded white males.
The “Early-Stage Business Boot Camp” concluding earlier this month at MSU’s “efactory” business incubator was for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) or women entrepreneurs only.
The Equal Protection Project (EPP), a national nonprofit watchdog, asked in an April 18 letter to Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey that his office launch an investigation into violations of state and federal law and constitutional rights associated with the free boot camp, in which participants also received $3,000 stipends.
On Thursday EPP sent a follow-up letter to Bailey renewing its call for an investigation, following MSU President Clif Smart’s assertion to the Citizen that MSU did nothing wrong. The letter also notes Springfield disabled veteran Jim Robinette’s formal complaints to Bailey’s office and the U.S. Department of Justice, after he heard nothing back from MSU.
Robinette said he was interested in the boot camp for startup businesses because he was contemplating one of his own. But he felt excluded from the one offered through MSU’s efactory, and ineligible for its $3,000 stipend.
“Frankly, I still don’t think we did anything wrong,” Smart told the Citizen, “given that we have multiple cohorts of this going on and this was just one cohort that was limited. We won’t do that. We’ll do a better job on the marketing and information (and) dissemination side and review the process to make sure that everyone has a chance to participate, but we’re not going to exclude people.”
That begs the question: If the university did nothing wrong with the boot camp, why is it changing the process going forward?
EPP certainly takes issue with Smart’s remarks, saying the damage to Robinette is already done, and that justifying discrimination because of the use of private dollars is “specious” given that publicly funded MSU “participated in creation of the eligibility criteria, participated in the evaluation and selection of the boot camp’s applicants and hosted the program in MSU facilities.”
When asked about the no-white-males-allowed boot camp earlier this month by The Heartlander, the university responded with an emailed statement:
“The Early-Stage Business Boot Camp Program is designed to assist new and aspiring small business owners in establishing and growing their businesses. The Spring 2023 program was funded by the U.S. Bank Foundation and, on a one-time basis, focused on minority and/or women-owned businesses.
“On an ongoing basis, the efactory will continue to offer the Early-Stage Business Boot Camp Program at no cost to the participants, and irrespective of their race and/or sex.”
EPP responded at the time that excusing the discrimination as a one-time incident wasn’t good enough.
“MSU offers no remedy in its public statements,” EPP writes in its April 27 follow-up letter to the attorney general. “MSU’s public statement also does not explain how such a clearly discriminatory program was permitted to happen.”
The letter maintains Bailey also needs to “ascertain whether other programs at MSU use racial, gender or other impermissible classifications to exclude or limit participation in them.”
The Heartlander asked that question of MSU earlier this month and was told to direct it to the university’s custodian of records.
The Heartlander asked MSU and the attorney general’s office to comment on the matter. MSU responded with a Friday letter addressed to the attorney general, doubling down on Smart’s contention the university did nothing wrong.
“Simply put, the University categorically denies the allegation that it is, or has been, engaging in illegal discrimination on the basis of race or sex,” Smart writes in the letter. “The efactory offers an Early-Stage Business Boot Camp Program (“Program”) on an ongoing basis that is open to small businesses irrespective of race, sex, or any other legally protected class.
“Specifically, and solely with respect to the Spring 2023 Program, the University received external funding from the U.S. Bank Foundation and the Missouri Scholarship and Loan Foundation to offer the Program to a cohort targeted at women- and/or minority-owned small businesses.”
The letter even suggests the no-white-males boot camp was inspired by Republican Gov. Mike Parson and his executive order, saying the boot camp “was done in response to Governor Mike Parson’s Show-Me Strong Recovery Taskforce. The Taskforce issued a number of recommendations, including “promot[ing] and enchanc[ing] existing state programs and services to support small, women, and minority owned businesses.”