College Park.--In March Richard Riley, the new secretary of the Department of Education, wrote to all university presidents expressing his support for race-based scholarships. By doing so he implied that the department might soon reverse the position it had taken during the Bush administration. The letter was heralded by many, and criticized by others, as having legalized the use of race-based scholarships. Such is not the case. The issue of the legality of race-based financial-aid programs can be settled only by the courts.
In an important test case, Podberesky v. Kirwan, a challenge has been raised to the legality of a race-based aid program, the Benjamin Banneker Scholarship, at the University of Maryland at College Park. The outcome of this case could go a long way toward determining the fate of all programs that target scholarship funds to members of a particular minority group, including the Meyerhoff Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Since 1969, each public university in Maryland has been under a court order, initiated by the Office of Civil Rights, to develop programs to produce student enrollments more proportionately representative of the African-American population in the state as a whole. Similar mandates were given to all other states that until the mid-1950s had operated segregated school systems.
The Banneker scholarship program was created in 1972 as part of the university's response to this federal mandate. In its present form, the program annually provides approximately 30 four-year "full cost" scholarships to black entering freshmen, based on academic merit.
In 1990 Daniel J. Podberesky applied for admission to the university and for a scholarship open to all students that, like Banneker, provided a four-year "full cost" scholarship based on academic merit. Mr. Podberesky was admitted to the university but was not awarded a scholarship. He then filed suit in the U.S. District Court challenging the legality of the Banneker program because, since he is not black, he was not allowed to compete for one of its scholarships.
Last spring the District Court ruled that the existence of the Banneker program did not violate the law because, among other reasons, the federal mandate to the institution remained in effect. Mr. Podberesky then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which reversed the decision and called for the dismantling of the Banneker program unless the university could demonstrate that there were present effects of past discrimination. The university has now returned to District Court to present such a case.
Some may ask why the university is prepared to go to such lengths to maintain its Banneker program. main reason is directly tied to a most unfortunate aspect of the institution's past.
Until the 1950s, the university refused admission to blacks -- including, it was widely recalled at the time of his death, Thurgood Marshall. The state's long history of discrimination in denying black citizens the right to attend its largest and academically most advanced institution has had an impact on the social and economic well being of many of the parents, grandparents, teachers and guidance counselors of today's college-aged black student population.
These consequences of past discrimination linger on in the negative attitudes some members of the black community hold toward the university. Equally regrettable are the negative stereotypes held by some non-blacks, stereotypes that continue to adversely affect the academic performance and future well being of black students. As a consequence, among the predominant ethnic and racial groups in Maryland, only blacks remain under-represented on the College Park campus in comparison with their presence in the total population.
The Banneker students at College Park graduate at an extraordinarily high rate, roughly 90 percent since the inception of the program. They serve as outstanding role models for all students, most especially for other black students. Their presence is an essential element in the diversity of the campus. And, as their ranks grow, Banneker alumni are an invaluable aid in recruiting other black students.
A measure of the effectiveness of Banneker Program is that last year the University of Maryland at College Park ranked first in the nation among institutions not historically black in the number of blacks receiving bachelor's degrees. One would have thought such a result would have led to a call for emulation of the program at universities across the country, not an order to dismantle it.
Should the University of Maryland or any university continue race-based scholarship programs indefinitely? Obviously not. But for the present they should be allowed to continue to use one of their most effective means for demonstrating to blacks that today's universities are not what they used to be and that, with greater participation by blacks, they can become even better.
We can all look forward to a day when blacks participate in higher education in proportion to their percent of the overall population. Then, perhaps, special measures such as the Banneker Program will no longer be required. Much as we might wish it otherwise, that day has not yet arrived.
William E. Kirwan is president of the University of Maryland at College Park.