Furor over minority scholarship issue fails to subside

December 20, 1990|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The confusing ruckus over whether the federal government should restrict minority scholarships grew more muddled and acrimonious yesterday, though the policy seems likely to be changed either by Congress, the Bush administration or the federal courts long before it would take effect at the end of a four-year grace period.

But that likelihood -- acknowledged by legislators, educators and President Bush himself -- did nothing to quell the growing sound and fury over the new policy.

The focus of the uproar yesterday was in the House Education and Labor Committee, where educators and civil rights leaders predicted that the new guidelines would severely limit scholarships directed at minorities, though they offered few specific numbers to document their claims.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education official who started the controversy, Assistant Secretary Michael L. Williams, snubbed the committee by canceling an appearance in which he was to explain the department's new rules. He gave no reason.

Mr. Williams was in turn snubbed by one of his predecessors in the job, David S. Tatel, who suggested to the committee that schoolsshould simply ignore the rules because Mr. Williams' office, the civil rights division of the department, is not empowered to issue or enforce them.

The mess began with a Dec. 4 letter from Mr. Williams to officials of the Fiesta Bowl football game in Tempe, Ariz. Sensitive to national criticism of Arizona's failure to approve a holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Fiesta Bowl officials wanted to set up scholarships specifically for minority students in honor of Dr. King.

Mr. Williams told them that such scholarships would be illegal for universities receiving federal money, and he detailed his response in a news release that set off an outcry among educators and moans of embarrassment among White House officials.

Attempting to calm the furor, Mr. Williams met with White House officials, and he presented a new Education Department policy statement on Tuesday.

That statement backed away from his Fiesta Bowl opinion but said that many other types of scholarships specifically for minority students would be restricted.

Private universities receiving federal money, the statement said, could only offer such scholarships if they were financed by private donations designated for that purpose. Use of general school funds or federal money for such scholarships was said to be wrong.

State-supported schools were advised to rely on court decisions for guidance, and all types of schools were given a four-year grace period before any action would be taken against them as a result of the policy.

White House officials maintained Tuesday that most private school scholarships are paid for by private donations, not with money from colleges' general funds. But yesterday Richard F. Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, told the Education and Labor Committee that the opposite is true.

He acknowledged a shortage of statistical information, however, saying, "There are no data, to date, on the amount of aid specifically earmarked for minority students that is awarded per year on our campuses."

About 82 percent of black undergraduates at private campuses get some sort of financial aid, he said, and the same is true for 72 percent of Hispanic undergraduates and 59 percent of Asian-Americans undergraduates.

But part of those totals -- no one seems to know how much -- is a result of scholarship programs in which the overriding qualifications are academic excellence or financial need, rather than race.

Robert H. Atwell, president of the American Council on Education, also sharply criticized the new policy.

"It creates an unnecessary stigma around all minority scholarship programs, an impression that those now in existence are living on borrowed time because they are illegal," Mr. Atwell said, "and it fosters an incorrect and divisive public impression that scholarships for minority students are somehow denying other students their rightful place."

Perhaps the strongest words of the day came from committee members angry at Mr. Williams' no-show. Maryland Representative Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, called the cancellation "insulting to this committee and to the people of this nation."

But Mr. Tatel, who held Mr. Williams' job from 1977 to 1979, during the Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter, told the committee that the Office of Civil Rights has no authority to make any minority scholarships illegal, much less enforce such a rule.

That can be done only through the adoption of a formal regulation, a time-consuming process, or by initiating a cut-off of federal funds, which would be subject to court challenges.

Until then, Mr. Tatel said, the policy "should be viewed as no more than [Mr. Williams'] personal opinion."

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