WASHINGTON -- White House officials acknowledged yesterday that the Education Department did not clear with President Bush or his staff its policy announcement that "exclusive" scholarships -- those offered to minorities specifically the basis of race or national origin -- violate civil rights law.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater avoided a direct response to questions about where Mr. Bush stands on the scholarship issue.
"Obviously, we like to know in advance of decisions that have wide repercussions, but we didn't," Mr. Fitzwater said. "That's the way it happens."
He noted that Mr. Bush had supported various affirmative action programs but opposed racial "quotas."
"This is a kind of an in-between case," Mr. Fitzwater said.
Later, the White House press office would not go beyond Mr. Fitzwater's remarks to comment on a news report that the president opposes the new policy.
The policy directive was contained in a "national enforcement strategy" for the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights that was set forth at a news conference Wednesday by Michael L. Williams, the department's new assistant secretary for civil rights, who is responsible for the office's policies and management.
Mr. Williams cited regulations under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as prohibiting colleges and universities from "providing different or segregated financial aid or other program benefits" to students "on the basis of race, color or national origin."
Institutions that offer such aid, he said, risk losing all federal funding, including the ability of their students to participate in federal student-grant programs.
Richard F. Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, described the association's member institutions as being "in a quandary" as a result of the directive, which he said represented a reversal of departmental policy.
Mr. Rosser said he had asked for an immediate meeting with Education Undersecretary Ted Sanders, who is now acting head of the department following the resignation Wednesday of Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos. Other major education organizations, such as the American Council on Education, have joined in the request for the meeting, Mr. Rosser said.
"If we can't get this issue resolved at that level, we'll take our case directly to the White House," he added.
The office of Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, D-Calif., who is chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said that hearings on the issue would be held Wednesday.
"We will be taking a closer look at just what the administration has in mind and what the implications are," said Representative William D. Ford, D-Mich., who is about to succeed the retiring Mr. Hawkins as committee chairman.
Meanwhile, whether Mr. Cavazos approved of the directive, whether it figured in his resignation and whether he quit or was fired remained unclear.
One Education Department official, who spoke only on a basis of anonymity, insisted that Mr. Cavazos had been "briefed" about the policy change.
As to Mr. Cavazos' resignation, Mr. Fitzwater said: "Dignity, I think, suggests that he has the right to characterize that departure in any way he wants to, and I'll leave it to him."
A senior administration official, however, described the departure as a "dismissal."