WASHINGTON -- Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, a brand-new figure in the Bush administration, moved quickly yesterday to mute -- at least until the fall -- further controversy over an Education Department aide's aborted ruling that "race-specific" college scholarships to minority students are illegal.
Mr. Alexander, on his third day in office, held a news conference to announce that institutions of higher education may continue to award such scholarships for six months while his department works out new guidelines "about student scholarship and loan programs in which a student's race or national origin is a factor."
The confusion exists, Mr. Alexander said, because the law -- the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- was "unsettled" on the scholarship issue and Education Department decisions based on the act were "not totally consistent." Pending the outcome of the review, college financial aid offices should "keep doing what you are doing until you are told otherwise," Mr. Alexander said.
The secretary said his announcement "is intended to send the strongest possible signal to disadvantaged Americans that a college education is the door to opportunity and that $18 billion in federal student grants and federally guaranteed loans are available this year to help."
According to Richard Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, nearly 90 percent of the nation's 1,600 private colleges and universities have one or more scholarship programs designated for minority undergraduate students.
Mr. Rosser said an association survey showed that about 15,100 undergraduates and 1,200 graduate students were receiving assistance totaling $114 million under minority scholarship programs. The average award is nearly $7,000, he said.
Michael Williams, the assistant education secretary for civil rights who issued the controversial ruling last December, stood silently at Mr. Alexander's side while his new boss said the new guidelines would aim to "clear up confusion about to what extent a student's race or national origin may be considered as a factor in awarding financial aid."
An hour later, Mr. Williams underwent more than two hours of hostile questioning by the House Government Operations Subcommittee on Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations. Mr. Williams acknowledged that his ruling may have had a "chilling effect" on higher education and civil rights communities.
Asked at his news conference whether his announcement of the forthcoming policy review had been timed to overshadow the congressional hearing, Mr. Alexander, a former Republican governor of Tennessee, smiled slightly and replied: "That would be all right."
Mr. Williams initiated the controversy last Dec. 4 when he informed officials of the Fiesta Bowl, a postseason college football game in Arizona, that their proposed scholarship program would violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by institutions receiving federal funds. The officials had planned to set aside $100,000 for "Martin Luther King Jr. memorial scholarships" and restricted the recipients to black students.