Race-based awards defended

April 30, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

The University of Maryland at College Park, acknowledgin that some blacks perceive its campus climate as "hostile," said yesterday that it plans to keep offering race-based scholarships as a way of attracting African-American students.

President William E. Kirwan issued a report concluding that College Park's Banneker scholarship program, which pays the full costs of about 25 black students a year and isn't open to members of other races, is a "necessary and effective tool."

In a national test case of race-based scholarships, the Banneker program has been challenged in a federal lawsuit brought by a 20-year-old biochemistry major at College Park. He claims that the university violated his constitutional rights by barring him from competing for a Banneker scholarship because he is not black.

A U.S. appeals court ruled last year that, to justify keeping the scholarships, the university must persuade a federal judge in Baltimore that "present effects of past discrimination" still exist at College Park. It also must show that the 14-year-old Banneker program is a narrowly tailored means of overcoming those effects.

That ruling set the stage for yesterday's report, which put the university in the unenviable position of having to depict a troubled racial climate on the College Park campus in order to defend the need for race-based scholarships.

"The university recognizes it has two strikes against it, and the report issued by the president today is a desperate effort to avoid a third strike," said Richard A. Samp, a lawyer for Daniel J. Podberesky, the student from Randallstown who brought the suit in 1990.

Mr. Samp, of the conservative Washington Legal Foundation, contended that the university had shown only that it experiences the same racial tensions that exist in society in large. That evidence, he said, is not enough to satisfy Supreme Court guidelines for maintaining a race-based program.

In the next few months, the two sides will be making those arguments to U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz, who will decide whether the program may continue.

The report released by the university yesterday listed three main effects of past discrimination:

* The College Park campus has "an adverse reputation" among some members of the African-American community.

* Some blacks perceive a "hostile campus climate" at College Park.

* African-American students have "low enrollment, retention and graduation rates" compared to other students at the state's flagship campus.

Blacks make up about 11 percent of College Park undergraduates. Only 53 percent of blacks graduate within five years after entering, compared to 64 percent of other students, the report said. A recent study showed that College Park graduated more blacks than any other predominantly white university in the nation.

Dr. Kirwan said in an interview that College Park's racial climate was not unusually bad, but that disharmony in society at large "gets reflected on campus. We're not an island," he said.

"I think the fact that we were once a segregated institution means that the perception that exists in general society gets exacerbated in an institution like College Park," he said.

Dr. Kirwan said the Banneker program helps College Park compete with other universities to recruit capable black students and provides student role models for other blacks on campus.

"We'd be at a serious disadvantage" if the Banneker program were abolished, he said.

Mr. Samp argued that College Park has backed the Banneker scholarships not as a remedy for the effects of past discrimination, but merely as a marketing tool.

"Every school has such a program, and [College Park administrators] are afraid they will lose out in the bidding war [for black students] if they stop the program," he said.

Samuel Podberesky, father of the plaintiff and co-counsel in the case, said his son, whose mother is a Costa Rican-born #i Hispanic, was excluded from the Banneker program "solely because he is not black." No program exists only for Hispanics or any other racial or ethnic group.

"In our view, that's a clear violation of the constitution," he said.

The College Park campus is spending about $800,000 this year to pay the tuition, room and board, fees and book expenses of Banneker scholars, said Roland King, a university spokesman.

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