WASHINGTON -- Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos, the first-ever Hispanic in a U.S. Cabinet, resigned yesterday as his department announced a new policy barring schools from offering minority scholarships.
The nation's civil rights and education establishments reacted with rage and defiance yesterday to the new policy, which was announced by Michael L. Williams, the new chief of the department's Office of Civil Rights.
The policy would withhold federal funds from schools that offer scholarships designated for minority students.
[The New York Times reported that Mr. Cavazos' resignation followed a White House meeting on Tuesday in which John H. Sununu, the president's chief of staff, told the secretary that President Bush wanted him to leave the Cabinet by the end of the month. Mr. Cavazos replied that he would leave by the end of the week.]
Mr. Cavazos, who had been secretary for two years, gave no reason for his decision to resign. His spokeswoman at the department, Etta Fielek, would say only that his departure had "absolutely no connection" to the scholarship policy.
Nevertheless, four sources in the civil rights and education fields said they thought that Mr. Cavazos' resignation was politically connected to the announcement.
Mr. Williams unveiled the scholarship policy at almost the same moment that Mr. Cavazos' resignation was being announced at a Cabinet meeting, which the secretary didn't attend.
Mr. Cavazos' departure from President Bush's Cabinet had been rumored for some time. Administration sources had said that his performance as education secretary was a constant target of criticism by Mr. Sununu.
Some leaders in the field of education regarded Mr. Cavazos as an inadequate agent for a president who has declared that he wants to be remembered as the "education president."
"It would be hard to tell what would have been different if we hadn't had a secretary of education at all during this period of time," said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "I hope they don't keep the position vacant for another three years."
But Robert H. Atwell, president of the American Council on Education, issued a statement yesterday in which he said that "the administration was better served by Secretary Cavazos than he was by those in the White House."
As to the department's policy decision to prohibit colleges and universities from offering "race-exclusive" scholarships, Mr. Atwell said the American Council on Education would advise institutions of higher education to defy it.
He said that the policy decision, "if allowed to stand, apparently would reverse over a decade of legal precedent and advice received by institutions" from the department's Office of Civil Rights, which Mr. Williams now manages.
"We believe this advisory [decision] is incorrect and misguided, and may be politically motivated," Mr. Atwell said. "Therefore, we will advise institutions of higher education that offer minority scholarships to continue their current practices."
The Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, issued a statement in which he said that Mr. Williams' ruling was a "crude and blatant attempt to seriously cripple, if not kill outright, the well-intentioned efforts of a number of colleges and universities to provide educational opportunities for minority students."
Dr. Hooks said that the NAACP would "fight this directive with every possible means at our disposal," adding that he had instructed the organization's attorneys to "immediately begin studying the possibility of bringing a legal challenge" against the ruling.
In New York, Julius Chambers, head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund -- an autonomous organization that works closely with the NAACP on legal issues involving civil rights -- said the department's new policy was "inconsistent with the law."
"At a time when all of us are struggling to increase the number of minorities in colleges and universities, somebody down there [in Washington] was more interested in politicking than education," Mr. Chambers said.
Ralph Neas, executive director of the 180-organization Civil Rights Leadership Conference, said that his coalition was already involved in "many calls and many meetings" on strategy to offset or roll back the directive, which he described as "outrageous."
However, the United Negro College Fund, perhaps the nation's largest single source of scholarships for black students, found that for it, "the matter of race-specific scholarship support is not an issue."