The Auction Block


Washington.--The only thing more aggravating than a good idea completely ignored is a good idea taken to a foolish extreme. Take, for example, campus recruitment of minorities.

Energized by the noble goal of diversity, some colleges have taken the easy and reckless road, creaming off the brightest black high school graduates in a wild competition that increasingly brings to mind another grim moment in African-American history: the auction block.

A recent report by Fox Butterfield in the New York Times describes major colleges and universities exerting the sort of wild bribing and cajoling that give athletic scouting a bad name. It includes scholarships, refunds of application fees, free trips to campus and various fringe goodies like tickets to football games and rap concerts, or outright cash in the form of grants that don't have to be repaid.

Unexpected victims of this bizarre bazaar are the schools that play by the rules, like Harvard, which in its plodding old-fashioned insistence on awarding scholarships strictly on need, was actually bypassed by almost half of the black freshmen who were accepted last year "overwhelmingly for financial reasons," Harvard announced. Meaning: Harvard was outbid by other colleges for those much-prized blacks.

Pardon me for being a party pooper, but as one whose ancestors stood on auction blocks, I find this modern version almost as demeaning. My forebears at least had a certain nobility in their being auctioned off against their will. Today too many of us seem to be asking for it.

And, happily, quite a few of us are not. Within the black community, I find little passion for programs that help us simply because we are black, without taking individual need into account. Take, for example, my experience a few years ago after I wrote a column that uncharacteristically defended a Bush administration civil-rights policy.

I found myself agreeing with President Bush's Education Department's decision, later watered down, to curtail some of the 45,000 scholarships the nation's colleges and universities award based strictly on race.

No question, I thought, that colleges should give grants, scholarships and other forms of aid to students who are genuinely needy. And there was no question in my mind that private donors have the right to designate scholarships for blacks, women, Eskimos, people named Arnold or any other group they wish. It's their money.

But the scholarships that colleges, as opposed to outside sources, award are a slightly but significantly different matter of public policy. Since scholarship money is precious, I figured, why should my son be awarded a scholarship simply because he is black when those dollars could be given to help another deserving black youngster who is more genuinely needy?

I support affirmative action. Diversity is enriching, especially in an academic environment. But some paths to that enriching destination are more reckless, however tempting, than others, and should be avoided at all costs.

Scholarships that are not related to academic or sports excellence should be awarded based on need, I said, not race. As a people, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by that shift, I reasoned. After all, blacks are disproportionately more needy, so we will inevitably be more eligible, as a group, while the help will be targeted to those who need and deserve help the most. It's more challenging and perhaps more expensive for colleges to determine genuine need than to award simply on skin tone or ancestry, but it's far more rewarding, too.

That's what I wrote.

Then I figuratively hid under my desk to await what I expected would be a hailstorm of letters and telephone calls declaring me to be a traitor to my race and, perhaps, even to humanity. But, guess what? It didn't happen.

The column did stir up a generous portion of letters, phone calls and radio-station chatter, but a remarkable and encouraging number agreed with my position. What an intelligent audience I have.

The most memorable call I received came from a young black sophomore at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

He didn't want his name printed but he wanted me to know he was troubled that, even though both his parents were prosperous suburban professionals, the university had granted him $500, simply because he was black, a state resident and had graduated near the top of his class.

It troubled him, he said. He kept the money. Who wouldn't? But it troubled him, anyway. "Why should I get this money when somebody over at Cabrini-Green [an enormous, embattled public housing project on Chicago's North Side] could use it more?" he said.

Why, indeed? A call to the university confirms they still have the "President's Award Program," which awards at least $500, whether they need it or not, to black, Asian and Hispanic students who are Illinois residents and have a minimum ACT score of 24 (out of 36) or are in the top 50 percent of their high school graduating class.

If they have actual financial need they can get as much as $4,000. That's OK, but I find it fascinating that for every eight students who don't need the money, a full grant could have been given to one who does.

Sometimes ambiguity is a virtue. Sometimes affirmative action works best when its mechanisms try to be at least as ambiguous as the racism it is trying to remedy. Otherwise, it begins to sound like a quota or, worse, a bounty.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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