UM Faces a Catch-22 on Minority Scholarships

July 19, 1992|By EDWARD L. HEARD Jr.

If ever the truth did hurt, the University of Maryland will surely find out.

University officials have been given the unenviable task of exposing existing discriminatory practices in hopes of salvaging some of the school's diversity efforts. A federal judge recently set a hearing date for April 1993, by which time university officials must show why it operates a 14-year-old black scholarship program even after meeting many of its mandatory desegregation objectives. A 1991 appellate court ruled that the program was unconstitutional, unless the school proved that black students are subject to ongoing discrimination.

Thus the ultimatum to the university: admit to racial problems on campus or get rid of your black scholarships. Skeletons may fall from closets, inflaming sensitivities and damaging the image of a flagship campus sworn to diversity.

But the burden of proof is not really a burden, but more of an inconvenience. The need for the Benjamin Banneker scholarship program is obvious. The only thing standing in its way is the university's pride.

While there are no cross burnings at College Park, there are teachers who are skeptical of black students' achievements. Dubious hiring practices, countless racial confrontations and graffiti all attest to the ongoing effects of discrimination.

A professor was forced to resign a couple of years ago because he warned an engineering student she had two strikes against her -- as a female and as a black. In Februry, College Park officials agreed to pay $230,000 to black secretarial applicants who were found by the U.S. Labor Department to have likely been discriminated against, even though their qualifications exceeded those of some of the people hired.

University records reveal a difference in the four-year graduation rates of black and white students. In 1983, 442 black students entered the University of Maryland at College Park. Four years later, 35 percent of that group were still attending school and 10.2 percent had graduated. Over the same four years 27.9 percent of the 3,462 entering white students graduated, and 36.5 percent were still in school. Though retention rates for whites and blacks improved at times since 1982, the data showed that gains since the Supreme Court initiated efforts to desegregate education in the 1950s have been minimal.

The case in debate, Podberesky v. Kirwan, is an insult to the idea of diversifying a historically white institution. In 1990, Daniel Podberesky, a part-Hispanic College Park junior, challenged the fairness of the program after he was turned down for a Banneker scholarship because he is not an African American.

Mr. Podberesky's attorneys point to improving graduation rates for blacks to suggest that discrimination within the university in non-existent. In the 1988-89 school year, the University of Maryland boasted the highest number of black graduates for all predominantly white schools in the nation. From that, the plaintiff argued that any program still being used to rectify institutionalized racism is not required.

But the success of black students would seem a reason to encourage the program, not a cause to end support for black students. Why mess up a good thing, something that only strives to match the educational opportunities afforded to most white youths?

The Banneker program provides for tuition and fees, housing, room and board for no fewer than 20 talented black students each year. Some of the students were financially incapable of attending school. Others were just fortunate.

The University of Maryland's efforts appear to be consistent with the moral conscience the nation's high court has recently shown. The Supreme Court ruled June 26 that Mississippi's state-run college system hasn't worked hard enough to dismantle segregation there.

The University of Maryland, unlike many other schools, has done more than the required minimum to desegregate the state's education system. Knowing this, the public will balance its perceptions of a school that may wind up confessing to institutionalized racism in presenting its evidence next April, with its approval of a school that has elevated its retention rates for black students almost every year since 1982.

For the sake of all those black students who might be lost in the shuffle without the Banneker program, university officials would do well to unmask existing discrimination wherever possible and at all costs. Skeletons may fall from the closet, but at least the door would be open for future talented students.

Edward Heard Jr. is a senior journalism major at the University of Maryland at College Park and a Baltimore Sun Scholar.

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