WASHINGTON -- Swiftly and with no sign of dissent, the Supreme Court scuttled yesterday the University of Maryland's 17-year-old program giving top-flight blacks special scholarships to enroll on the College Park campus.
Caught between government demands that more be done to prove the university has overcome its long history of segregation and complaints that a generous form of student aid was open only to blacks, University of Maryland officials said yesterday that they will have to scramble to find ways to attract black students.
The Supreme Court voted to leave intact a federal appeals court ruling striking down the Benjamin Banneker scholarship program, which offers a four-year scholarship covering room, board and tuition to promising black students. One hundred thirty-nine students -- about 5 percent of all black undergraduates -- receive the $10,000 annual grant for four years, under a program begun in 1978 as part of an effort to desegregate the school.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., struck down the scholarships because, it said, the university had not proved that the program was narrow enough in scope to overcome the usual constitutional barrier to government aid based solely on race.
The Supreme Court's refusal to review that ruling did not set a national precedent, but it was a clear sign that the justices did not find the appeal worthy of full-scale analysis at the highest judicial level.
Even so, the court's order raised significant new doubts about many programs, federal, state and local, that assign public benefits according to an individual's race -- affirmative action programs that lately have come under new political and legal scrutiny.
College Park administrators said the Banneker scholarship's reach has stretched far beyond the limited number of students involved because it demonstrates the university's commitment to welcoming blacks.
"The courts are saying you can't have a Plan B -- you can't do anything that is race specific," said William E. Kirwan, the school's president. "We're going to have to check with the attorney general's office about what we're able to do. I just find that very discouraging because of the progress we've been making."
Following the 4th Circuit's decision earlier this year, the university merged the Banneker program with the Francis Scott Key merit scholarship, open to student of all races based largely on grades and College Board entrance test scores. Both programs are based on academic merit, not financial need.
Although the Banneker scholarship is Maryland's most visible racially specific program, the state also maintains an "other-race" scholarship designed to attract whites to historically black campuses and blacks to predominantly white schools. In the past school year, for example, the state spent about $700,000 to send 460 white students to four historically black campuses and about $2.3 million to send 969 black students to seven predominantly white campuses.
Created in the wake of vigorous federal desegregation efforts, those initiatives, too, are now in question, state lawyers said.
Five years ago, incoming University of Maryland freshman Daniel J. Podberesky sued the university, saying that his grades and test scores should have qualified him for any scholarship promoting diversity, but that it was denied him because he is not black. Mr. Podberesky's mother is of Hispanic descent. He graduated from College Park in spring 1994 and is now enrolled at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Mr. Podberesky has consistently refused to comment on his case, and he continued to do so yesterday through his father. Samuel Podberesky, an assistant general counsel for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the court challenge had less to do with his son than with the greater issue of racial discrimination.
"This case is a matter of principle. It doesn't really involve an individual except that an individual has to file suit," said the elder Mr. Podberesky, who represented his son until the Washington Legal Foundation, a conservative Washington public interest law firm, joined the case. "In this particular instance, the Banneker scholarship violated the law."
While federal judges first ordered the University of Maryland to admit blacks in 1951, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education have repeatedly rebuked College Park for its slow progress in desegregating its campus. Even now, the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights has not formally given the university a clean bill of health on segregation.
Blacks now make up 12.3 percent of the school's roughly 23,700 undergraduates -- one of the highest rates among major American research universities. But that's only half the percentage of Marylanders who are black.
And state attorneys argued on behalf of the university that it needed the program because it had not yet overcome its history of racial exclusion. In effect, university officials say they saw the modest program, which cost less than 2 percent of the school's $80 million financial aid budget, as a magic bullet that could knock down several barriers at once: attract top-tier black students; signal the university's interest in an integrated campus; provide other black students with role models and tutors; and create a corps of admissions recruiters -- the students themselves.
"The Banneker program showed me and . . . others that College Park really was making an effort to recruit and retain minority students," said Maisa Herron, a Banneker scholar who graduated last week from College Park and will head to the Emory University school of business in Atlanta in the fall.
"We hope the day will come when it's not necessary, but we don't believe that time has come yet," Dr. Kirwan said last week.
Dr. Kirwan has staked much of his record on the issue of diversity. In recent years, the university has undertaken a series of other initiatives, including a center supporting black engineering students and a six-week summer session to bring to campus black high school students interested in science careers.
The Banneker scholarship, in particular, has gained widespread support from campus groups, including the student newspaper, the student government and the faculty senate.
Unlike the Key scholarships, the Bannekers are based not just on grades and admission test scores, but also on a willingness to lead outside the classroom.
"We always asked them, 'You're going to get a scholarship. What are you going to give back to the community?' " said Professor Raymond Johnson, chairman of the committee that selects applicants.
While only 5 percent of all black students enrolled this year at the university were Banneker scholars, officials and students said they were disproportionately visible at College Park.
"Pick out a black leader on campus, and chances are it's a Banneker," said Banneker scholar Corey Davis, a rising senior from Teaneck, N.J., who is the chief justice of the student governance board.
Those applying for Bannekers were asked to submit an additional essay with questions focused around questions of race and leadership. A group of finalists were invited to campus for a full day of panel discussions, interviews and conversations with students and faculty. About 45 were offered scholarships each year; most accepted. (Many students turned down for the award are heavily recruited by the university anyway, having been identified as black students likely to be wooed by other campuses.)
Next year's merit scholars were offered room, board and tuition under the combined Banneker-Key program. Administration officials are hopeful that it can bring to campus top students of all races -- including blacks.
Current Banneker scholars at College Park will not have their status affected.
But the combined program is not racially targeted. No quotas will used, campus officials said. And their success rate in attracting top-flight black students has dropped demonstrably. Roughly 88 percent of students offered the Banneker scholarship each spring enrolled at College Park the following fall, said Robert L. Hampton, dean for undergraduate studies. Only 50 percent of black students offered the Banneker-Key scholarship accepted.
"Banneker scholarships are a way of getting the word out," said rising senior Monifa Brooks, a Banneker scholar who graduated from West Baltimore High School in 1992. "We have Banneker students from all over the country. I'm afraid the caliber of students coming in will decline.
"There is a message coming out that there is no need to address past discrimination."
MARYLAND COLLEGE SEGREGATION
1859 - Maryland opens its first land-grant public college, for white men only. (White women are admitted in 1916.)
1936 - Marshall, now a civil rights lawyer with a law degree from Howard Law School in Washington, wins a case in Maryland courts that forces the University of Maryland Law School to admit its first black student, Donald G. Murray. (The state did not have a law school for blacks.)
1949 - The University of Maryland's president, Harry "Curley" Byrd, urges that the University of Maryland at College Park be made private to avoid admission of black graduate students.
1950 - U.S. Supreme Court, acting in Oklahoma and Texas cases and relying partly on Maryland state court ruling in Murray case in 1936, for the first time orders desegregation of America's public graduate schools. Maryland Court of Appeals rules that University of Maryland nursing school in Baltimore must admit Esther McCready, who is black.
1954 - Supreme Court orders desegregation of America's public elementary, junior and senior high schools. University of Maryland Board of Regents announces it will admit "all residents of Maryland without regard to race."
1969 - Office of Civil Rights rules that the university in College Park is unconstitutionally segregated by race, with 99 percent white enrollment.
1978 - The university creates the Benjamin Banneker scholarship program, with financial aid provided only to black students, based on scholarly merit. University Board of Regents adopts a "master plan," reducing the size of the freshman class to emphasize quality over quantity. It assumes no increase in minority enrollment. Office of Civil Rights again finds insufficient action toward desegregation.
1985 - The university submits a new desegregation plan, specifically relying upon the Banneker scholarships as a tool for erasing the image of the College Park campus as an institution for whites. The Office of Civil Rights accepts the new plan.
1990 - Daniel J. Podberesky prepares to enter university at College Park, seeks and is denied a Banneker scholarship because he is not black.