As was wholly predictable, the Supreme Court yesterday turned away the University of Maryland College Park's bid to maintain its Benjamin Banneker scholarship program for black students. The recent trend throughout the federal judiciary has been to set tougher standards for race-based affirmative action efforts in areas ranging from education to voting rights. Given this judicial climate, UMCP officials seemed doomed in their attempt to overcome a federal appellate court's ruling last fall against the Banneker program.
Even in its 1978 finding in the Allan Bakke case, the Supreme Court struck a blow for affirmative action with a yes, but. Justice Lewis Powell wrote that year in the prevailing opinion of the 5-4 decision that race should be considered as a factor, but not the only factor, in college admission policies that aim to atone for decades of discrimination against minorities.
The Banneker program, initiated under government pressure to correct UMCP's long record of racial prejudice, has not met the guideline laid down by Justice Powell. Nor, for that matter, have the state's other two race-based scholarship programs -- the Meyerhoff awards at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, which tap both public and private sources to attract talented black students in mathematics, science and engineering; and the "other race" program designed to draw black students to predominantly white schools and white students to historically black schools.
Minority scholarship programs throughout the nation are likely to be jeopardized. Though the appellate court ruling from last fall applied only to Maryland and four neighboring states, the Supreme Court's action has set a precedent for any future challenges of Banneker-like awards.
So where does UMCP go from here?
We would restate our comments from last January, when we urged university officials to make a permanent solution of its temporary response to the appellate court ruling. By merging the race-based Banneker grants with the merit-based Francis Scott Key awards, the university created scholarships that simultaneously met the goals of the Banneker program and passed constitutional muster. Race became an important element of the new arrangement, yet not the sole element. Grades, leadership qualities and recommendations would likewise be considered. In short, the kind of affirmative action that meets the Powell standard.
A scholarship program along these lines, combined with other methods for keeping Maryland's top minority students on state campuses, would demonstrate that the university can address minority concerns in an effective and legal manner.