WASHINGTON -- Swiftly and with no sign of dissent, the Supreme Court scuttled yesterday the University of Maryland's 17-year-old program giving top-flight blacks special scholarships to enroll on the College Park campus.
Caught between government demands that more be done to prove the university has overcome its long history of segregation and complaints that a generous form of student aid was open only to blacks, University of Maryland officials said yesterday that they will have to scramble to find ways to attract black students.
The Supreme Court voted to leave intact a federal appeals court ruling striking down the Benjamin Banneker scholarship program, which offers a four-year scholarship covering room, board and tuition to promising black students. One hundred thirty-nine students -- about 5 percent of all black undergraduates -- receive the $10,000 annual grant for four years, under a program begun in 1978 as part of an effort to desegregate the school.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., struck down the scholarships because, it said, the university had not proved that the program was narrow enough in scope to overcome the usual constitutional barrier to government aid based solely on race.
The Supreme Court's refusal to review that ruling did not set a national precedent, but it was a clear sign that the justices did not find the appeal worthy of full-scale analysis at the highest judicial level.
Even so, the court's order raised significant new doubts about many programs, federal, state and local, that assign public benefits according to an individual's race -- affirmative action programs that lately have come under new political and legal scrutiny.
College Park administrators said the Banneker scholarship's reach has stretched far beyond the limited number of students involved because it demonstrates the university's commitment to welcoming blacks.
"The courts are saying you can't have a Plan B -- you can't do anything that is race specific," said William E. Kirwan, the school's president. "We're going to have to check with the attorney general's office about what we're able to do. I just find that very discouraging because of the progress we've been making."
Following the 4th Circuit's decision earlier this year, the university merged the Banneker program with the Francis Scott Key merit scholarship, open to student of all races based largely on grades and College Board entrance test scores. Both programs are based on academic merit, not financial need.
Although the Banneker scholarship is Maryland's most visible racially specific program, the state also maintains an "other-race" scholarship designed to attract whites to historically black campuses and blacks to predominantly white schools. In the past school year, for example, the state spent about $700,000 to send 460 white students to four historically black campuses and about $2.3 million to send 969 black students to seven predominantly white campuses.
Created in the wake of vigorous federal desegregation efforts, those initiatives, too, are now in question, state lawyers said.
Five years ago, incoming University of Maryland freshman Daniel J. Podberesky sued the university, saying that his grades and test scores should have qualified him for any scholarship promoting diversity, but that it was denied him because he is not black. Mr. Podberesky's mother is of Hispanic descent. He graduated from College Park in spring 1994 and is now enrolled at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Mr. Podberesky has consistently refused to comment on his case, and he continued to do so yesterday through his father. Samuel Podberesky, an assistant general counsel for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the court challenge had less to do with his son than with the greater issue of racial discrimination.
"This case is a matter of principle. It doesn't really involve an individual except that an individual has to file suit," said the elder Mr. Podberesky, who represented his son until the Washington Legal Foundation, a conservative Washington public interest law firm, joined the case. "In this particular instance, the Banneker scholarship violated the law."
While federal judges first ordered the University of Maryland to admit blacks in 1951, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education have repeatedly rebuked College Park for its slow progress in desegregating its campus. Even now, the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights has not formally given the university a clean bill of health on segregation.
Blacks now make up 12.3 percent of the school's roughly 23,700 undergraduates -- one of the highest rates among major American research universities. But that's only half the percentage of Marylanders who are black.