Aid ruling strikes at a symbol

October 29, 1994|By Mike Bowler and David Folkenflik | Mike Bowler and David Folkenflik,Sun Staff Writers

A federal court decision throwing out a blacks-only scholarship program at the University of Maryland College Park should not affect campus efforts across the country to desegregate, higher education officials said yesterday.

While most experts supported the university's Benjamin Banneker Scholarship program, they noted that the court's decision was made on narrow grounds and that the vast majority of African-Americans receiving financial aid, at College Park and elsewhere, are not getting it based on their race.

President William E. Kirwan, at an afternoon news conference, repeated his intention to appeal to the Supreme Court Thursday's decision of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

And college organizations rallied behind the program, which awards full scholarships to 139 African-Americans at College Park on the basis of academic merit.

A three-judge panel of the court found unanimously that a program so specifically based on race was not needed at College Park. "We are no longer talking about the kind of discrimination for which a race-conscious remedy may be prescribed," the court said.

A January survey of race-based scholarship programs in the United States by the General Accounting Office found that only 7 percent of minority undergraduates were receiving minority-targeted scholarships and that the proportion of dollars devoted to minority scholarships is about 4 percent.

The American Council on Education, an umbrella group for higher education, noted the GAO findings yesterday and urged its members to continue to target scholarship money to attract minorities.

"We urge [colleges and universities] to continue to take all proper steps to keep open the door of opportunity to American higher education," said the council president, Robert H. Atwell.

The symbolism of programs such as the Banneker scholarships is more important than its substance, several higher education officials said.

"In practice, these scholarships are a signal and a symbol that an institution . . . gives a damn about African-American students and is doing something about it," said C. Peter Magrath, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.

"A lot of us believe that allowing that particular option is a really strong signal to minority students."

Maryland has three major programs designed to desegregate campuses and improve the graduation rate of high-ability blacks:

* The Banneker program.

* The Meyerhoff program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), which uses a combination of private and public funds to attract students in science, engineering and mathematics.

* The "other race" program, which for nearly two decades has helped desegregate the state's campuses by providing aid for black students on predominantly white campuses and white students attending historically black schools.

In 1992-1993, for example, historically black Morgan State University reported $246,416 in "other race" grants to 109 students to attract whites to its Northeast Baltimore campus.

Freeman A. Hrabowski, the UMBC president, said yesterday that the Meyerhoff program is "more than justified when you consider that less than 2 percent of the nation's science and engineering doctorates are earned by blacks."

Students with Banneker and Meyerhoff scholarships constitute a minority of African-Americans on the two campuses: 139 of 3,500 at College Park, 156 of 1,372 at UMBC. All of the black students are eligible for other aid not based on race -- for example, state scholarships and federal Pell grants, which are based on family income.

Maryland last year spent $180,000 for "other race" awards in its public graduate schools.

Some states that offer race-based scholarships say they do so in response to federal desegregation mandates. For example, the state of Mississippi, which is under federal court order to better integrate its eight-campus system, currently spends a little less than $100,000 a year in public funds for scholarships to aid black doctoral students at its five predominantly white campuses, officials there said. Three of the five historically white schools also offer additional aid targeted specifically for blacks.

The Maryland case was filed four years ago by Daniel J. Podberesky, a part-Hispanic student who claimed that the Banneker program gave preferential treatment to blacks at the expense of other students.

George Keller, retired chairman of the department of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, said the purpose of the scholarships was to redress a particular injustice, so for others to say they were unfairly excluded misses the point.

"The addressing of the wrongs of the past really has to go to the one group we systematically excluded," said Dr. Keller. "It wasn't too long ago that [the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Thurgood Marshall wasn't allowed into the University of Maryland law school."

Whatever happens with the Banneker case, the man who filed it, Mr. Podberesky -- now attending the university's Baltimore medical school -- and most of the recipients of Banneker scholarships will have long since graduated.

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