WASHINGTON -- Trying to quell an angry reaction in education and civil rights circles, President Bush said yesterday that he had instructed the White House counsel to review a Department of Education decision to bar federal aid to colleges that offer scholarships designated solely for minority students.
"I've asked our staff here to give me a quick readout on that so we can make a determination," he said.
Bush praised Michael L. Williams, the Education Department's assistant secretary for civil rights, who detonated a political bomb when he announced a new policy stating that "race-exclusive" scholarships were discriminatory and therefore illegal.
Mr. Bush said he had looked at Mr. Williams' background and found him "an extraordinarily sensitive, very intelligent person," noting that "I don't think in this case anybody would accuse the person that promulgated those resolutions of doing it on a racist basis."
The Education Department official is black.
Mr. Williams argued that it is constitutionally illegal to have race-based scholarships. But college administrators and scholarship fund directors, along with leaders in the education and civil rights fields, charged that the decision would un
dercut painstaking efforts to improve the enrollment levels of minorities at schools.
White House officials and Cabinet members have divided into two camps over the issue, arguing whether it would be best to defend the policy, soften it, or "ice it," as one opponent put it.
Many White House officials were alarmed, or "in hysteria," as one put it, that the abrupt announcement had swiftly soured into a political loser for Mr. Bush.