College Park Scholarship Quandary

January 25, 1995

Officials of the University of Maryland College Park have devised what they call a temporary response to a federal appellate court's finding last fall that a UMCP blacks-only scholarship program is unconstitutional. By merging the race-based Benjamin Banneker program with the merit-based Francis Scott Key awards, university officials will abide by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision. Meantime, though, they have pledged to fight the ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court.

We have suggested previously a Supreme Court hearing could give Maryland and other public schools guidance they need on what is and is not constitutional in affirmative action programs such as the Banneker scholarships. The outcome of this case is expected to determine what happens to Banneker-style programs at other universities.

Yet an argument could be made against UMCP proceeding with its challenge. The temporary merger of the Banneker and Key awards makes enough sense to be rendered permanent. Race would be an important element of the new award process, but not a required element. Other significant factors would be considered: grades, leadership qualities and recommendations. Such a broad set of standards should pass constitutional muster.

University officials should note the judicial climate is not favorable to advocates of affirmative action. The trend in the federal judiciary is to set tougher standards for race-based efforts in areas ranging from education to voting rights. UMCP could save itself a lot of hassle -- and money -- by foregoing their last legal appeal and implementing the reasonable "temporary" solution immediately and for keeps. Officials obviously realize the sense of the Banneker-Key merger, given their intention to make it permanent if they lose their appeal.

To be sure, the College Park campus has been guilty of racial discrimination in the past. The Banneker program has helped erase that stain, adding needed diversity to the campus. Moreover, it has kept superior black students in Maryland and on the track to becoming future state leaders.

But now there is doubt as to whether there are not better methods for attracting minority students to UMCP and making them feel they belong. One such method appears to be the merging of the Banneker and Key scholarship programs.

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