Universities recasting blacks-only scholarships

June 18, 1995|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Staff Writer

The vaunted Meyerhoff scholarship program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County will be altered dramatically in light of last month's U.S. Supreme Court action striking down blacks-only scholarships at the University of Maryland College Park.

And throughout the region, university officials and lawyers are recasting scholarships aimed at attracting black students.

By the time Meyerhoff scholarships, designed to promote the education of blacks in science and engineering, are offered to the class entering UMBC in fall 1996, students of all races probably will be eligible, UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski said.

"I suspect that we will decide that the program will no longer be exclusively for African-American students," Dr. Hrabowski said.

Initially, UM's Banneker scholarship was open to all minority students, but in 1988 it was limited to blacks. Daniel J. Podberesky, a student of Hispanic descent, sued the university in 1990 after he was denied the scholarship. A federal judge upheld the program, but in October the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that students who did not qualify because they are not black were being discriminated against.

Formally, the U.S. Supreme Court last month declined to review the decision by the appellate court, so the ruling affects only universities in the states of the circuit -- Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. The judges' ruling does not rule out race-specific scholarships in all situations. But some public and private campuses are shifting their policies to withstand legal challenge.

The University of Maryland failed to convince the appellate panel that the scholarship was "narrowly tailored" to overcome the effects of prior discrimination at College Park and vital to the campus' efforts to do so. (In attempting to show justification for the program, College Park was placed in the position of arguing, in effect, that it had been racist.)

"The University of Maryland's inability to make the showing they were asked to make does not affect the ability of Morgan State to make a different showing," said Judith Winston, general counsel for the U.S. Department of Education. "But they've made it very difficult. The institutions in the 4th Circuit could be very worried about their ability to meet this very difficult standard."

The ruling in the Banneker case has led university officials to re-examine why they have their scholarship programs. Only 4 percent of all scholarship money is given in race-specific scholarships, which some colleges embraced in the 1970s and 1980s to welcome blacks into student bodies that had few.

Some colleges now justify their programs solely on the grounds of diversity. That defense, used by the University of Maryland, was never addressed by the 4th Circuit appellate court, so its constitutional validity remains uncertain, government lawyers said.

Others, like UMBC, say they want to train an army of black tutors and role models to lead the next generation of black students onto college campuses and into graduate schools.

UMBC, a school opened more than a decade after the end of legal segregation at Maryland's public campuses, created the Meyerhoff program in 1988 with $2 million from Robert and Jane Meyerhoff to boost the meager numbers of black men who receive doctoral degrees in science and math. Federal figures show that blacks make up more than 12 percent of the population but receive only about 3 percent of all doctorates and less than 2 percent of those in science and math.

A year later, when federal funds from the National Science

Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration were mixed into the pot, university officials expanded the program to include black women. About half of the 160 students who receive aid from the program are designated Meyerhoff scholars and receive a four-year full scholarship, worth roughly $9,000 per year. Others get smaller grants.

The Meyerhoff program has been hailed nationally as a model for improving the pool of future generations of black scientists. But state attorneys suggest that it may not pass constitutional muster.

So instead of a race-based merit scholarship, the selection criteria for the program may hinge on grades, test scores and the desire to work with inner city students in reading and math -- the building blocks for future scholars, Dr. Hrabowski said.

All of Maryland's public campuses are submitting their racially limited scholarships to the state attorney general's offices for review. The appellate court decision resolving the five-year challenge of UM's program said any plan to remedy past discrimination -- even at formerly segregated campuses -- must be narrowly tailored to address the earlier injustice.

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