Universities recasting blacks-only scholarships


The vaunted Meyerhoff scholarship program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County will be altered dramatically in light of last month's U.S. Supreme Court action striking down blacks-only scholarships at the University of Maryland College Park.

And throughout the region, university officials and lawyers are recasting scholarships aimed at attracting black students.

By the time Meyerhoff scholarships, designed to promote the education of blacks in science and engineering, are offered to the class entering UMBC in fall 1996, students of all races probably will be eligible, UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski said.

"I suspect that we will decide that the program will no longer be exclusively for African-American students," Dr. Hrabowski said.

Initially, UM's Banneker scholarship was open to all minority students, but in 1988 it was limited to blacks. Daniel J. Podberesky, a student of Hispanic descent, sued the university in 1990 after he was denied the scholarship. A federal judge upheld the program, but in October the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that students who did not qualify because they are not black were being discriminated against.

Formally, the U.S. Supreme Court last month declined to review the decision by the appellate court, so the ruling affects only universities in the states of the circuit -- Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. The judges' ruling does not rule out race-specific scholarships in all situations. But some public and private campuses are shifting their policies to withstand legal challenge.

The University of Maryland failed to convince the appellate panel that the scholarship was "narrowly tailored" to overcome the effects of prior discrimination at College Park and vital to the campus' efforts to do so. (In attempting to show justification for the program, College Park was placed in the position of arguing, in effect, that it had been racist.)

"The University of Maryland's inability to make the showing they were asked to make does not affect the ability of Morgan State to make a different showing," said Judith Winston, general counsel for the U.S. Department of Education. "But they've made it very difficult. The institutions in the 4th Circuit could be very worried about their ability to meet this very difficult standard."

The ruling in the Banneker case has led university officials to re-examine why they have their scholarship programs. Only 4 percent of all scholarship money is given in race-specific scholarships, which some colleges embraced in the 1970s and 1980s to welcome blacks into student bodies that had few.

Some colleges now justify their programs solely on the grounds of diversity. That defense, used by the University of Maryland, was never addressed by the 4th Circuit appellate court, so its constitutional validity remains uncertain, government lawyers said.

Others, like UMBC, say they want to train an army of black tutors and role models to lead the next generation of black students onto college campuses and into graduate schools.

UMBC, a school opened more than a decade after the end of legal segregation at Maryland's public campuses, created the Meyerhoff program in 1988 with $2 million from Robert and Jane Meyerhoff to boost the meager numbers of black men who receive doctoral degrees in science and math. Federal figures show that blacks make up more than 12 percent of the population but receive only about 3 percent of all doctorates and less than 2 percent of those in science and math.

A year later, when federal funds from the National Science

Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration were mixed into the pot, university officials expanded the program to include black women. About half of the 160 students who receive aid from the program are designated Meyerhoff scholars and receive a four-year full scholarship, worth roughly $9,000 per year. Others get smaller grants.

The Meyerhoff program has been hailed nationally as a model for improving the pool of future generations of black scientists. But state attorneys suggest that it may not pass constitutional muster.

So instead of a race-based merit scholarship, the selection criteria for the program may hinge on grades, test scores and the desire to work with inner city students in reading and math -- the building blocks for future scholars, Dr. Hrabowski said.

All of Maryland's public campuses are submitting their racially limited scholarships to the state attorney general's offices for review. The appellate court decision resolving the five-year challenge of UM's program said any plan to remedy past discrimination -- even at formerly segregated campuses -- must be narrowly tailored to address the earlier injustice.

At Bowie State University, a historically black campus, the school offers about $350,000 a year in "other race" aid to nonblack students. Because the program uses financial need as well as race, Bowie's standards are likely to receive state approval. Last year, the state spent about $700,000 to send 460 white students to four historically black campuses and roughly $2.3 million to send 969 black students to seven predominantly white campuses.

The Johns Hopkins University packages its scholarships for black students in a program targeting all minorities, and its selection process considers financial need as well.

At the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., the 20 students who receive its "diversity scholarships" represent a variety of minorities as well as people who are handicapped or have overcome backgrounds of adversity.

Officials at Hopkins and William and Mary say they are confident they'll escape the logic of the Banneker decision.

But as Donald Kiah, Bowie's director of financial aid, said recently, "at this point, it's all conjecture."

During a recent conversation with The Sun's editorial board, Duke University President Nannerl O. Keohane said her school would retool its Reginald Howard scholarships for black students. She said that the move was necessary even though she was not convinced the 4th Circuit's decision applied to private universities administering private dollars.

The Education Department's Ms. Winston said public schools cannot slip through the ban on racially specific scholarships by using private dollars. Even private schools that receive some federal dollars -- and virtually all colleges get some U.S. funding for research grants and financial aid -- are included in the decision, she contended.

But a few university officials said they were not ready to accept that judgment.

"That's a determination that we have to make locally," said James A. Belvin, Duke's director of financial aid. "It is interesting that the department has lobbied everywhere on behalf of the scholarships and now they want to apply [the decision] everywhere."

A spokeswoman for the University of Virginia said the school was not sure whether its approach would withstand legal challenge but suggested it would because the public campus applied only privately generated money to the blacks-only scholarships.

The school has more than 100 students given merit scholarships limited to blacks. "They work for us," spokeswoman Louise Dudley said. "For now, we're going to keep doing what we're doing."

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