U.S. judges ban scholarships based on race

October 28, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writers Mike Bowler, David Folkenflik and Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

In a decision with national implications for race-based scholarships, a federal appeals court yesterday threw out a program that gives full scholarships to black students at the University of Maryland College Park.

The three-judge panel said the university had failed to show that such a race-specific program is needed. It is inappropriate, they added, to attack broad, societal discrimination with such race-conscious remedies.

University officials said they expect to appeal the ruling to either the full U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., or the U.S. Supreme Court. The immediate effect on the Benjamin Banneker Scholarship program and its approximately 140 scholarship students is unclear, said William E. Kirwan, president of the university.

"My assumption is students currently in the program can continue, but we would not be able to continue the program in its current form next school year," he said.

The program, created in 1972 in response to federal desegregation mandates, provides full tuition, room and board, and books to 30 to 40 new students each year. Room, board and tuition for in-state residents this year total $8,623. The program's $800,000 annual budget represents half the amount of the school's publicly funded academic scholarships.

Advocates of the scholarships quickly criticized the ruling, saying it could set a national precedent that might weaken other types of minority scholarship programs.

"Everybody's got them," said Donald Eastman, a vice president at the University of Georgia, which also offers race-based scholarships. "I don't believe it will stand."

"This kind of ruling sends a kind of chilling message to those who believe in promoting the idea of diversity," said Earl T. Shinhoster, interim senior administrator of the NAACP.

If the decision is upheld, "it will negatively impact the ability of predominantly white campuses to recruit African-American students," said Sharon Hassan, president of the Delaware-D.C.-Maryland Association of Financial Aid Administrators, who is a financial aid officer at College Park.

"Whether the message is accurate or not, it will send the perception that talented African-Americans may not be as welcome," she said.

'Complete victory'

But the attorney for the student who challenged the scholarships called the decision "a complete victory."

"If a school like the University of Maryland, with a history of excluding blacks, can't justify a race-based scholarship, I don't think there are many schools in the country that could do that," said Richard A. Samp, a lawyer with the conservative Washington Legal Foundation.

The case, filed four years ago by Daniel J. Podberesky -- a straight-A, part-Hispanic student -- claimed that the Banneker program gave preferential treatment to blacks at the expense of other students. Mr. Podberesky graduated in May and is now a medical student at the university. He is seeking about $35,000 in scholarship money he believes that he should have received.

Twice upheld

U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz twice upheld the program -- the second time after a panel of appellate judges said it could continue only if "present effects of past discrimination" exist on the campus and if the Banneker program is aimed narrowly at those problems. That decision, in effect, left the university in the position of trying to prove it had discriminated against blacks.

In his most recent opinion, one year ago, Judge Motz cited a long tradition of discrimination in Maryland higher education that, he said, continues to affect African-American students on the College Park campus.

"Undoubtedly, our history contributes mightily to our prejudices, and it is at best naive and at worst disingenuous to suggest that a culture of bigotry inculcated over centuries can be erased by less than 20 years of ameliorative measures," he wrote.

Typical problems

The university outlined typical problems black students face: The school suffers a poor reputation within the African-American community, African-Americans are underrepresented in the student population, black students who enroll have low retention and graduation rates, and the atmosphere on campus is perceived as hostile to African-American students, officials reported.

And the program got a political boost a year ago when the Clinton administration filed a legal brief supporting the program.

But in its 24-page opinion yesterday, the panel of the 4th Circuit Court again rejected the program as unconstitutional. The judges ordered the university to begin re-examining Mr. Podberesky's admission to the program and said the school could no longer require a student to be African-American to qualify for a Banneker scholarship.

Appeal planned

Racial and ethnic distinctions of any sort are inherently suspect and call for the most exacting judicial examination, they noted.

If it is assumed that every predominantly white college or university has discriminated in the past, "we are no longer talking about the kind of discrimination for which a race-conscious remedy may be prescribed," the judges wrote.

Dr. Kirwan said last night that he was not looking to revise the program, despite the ruling.

"We believe the program is justified," he said. "I intend to pursue this matter to the limits that our courts allow. I'm not interested at the moment in modifying the program.

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