When race matters

March 31, 2003

DOZENS OF socially responsible colleges and universities operate summer camps for minority high school students. The idea typically is to spark interest in math and science, subjects in which these young people are often short-changed in inferior high schools. The aim is to increase the number of minority students who go on to college and prepare for work as math or science teachers, physicians and engineers, careers in which minorities are in short supply.

But these efforts may come to a screeching halt. The same folks who are challenging the University of Michigan's race-conscious admissions plans in the Supreme Court aren't content to wait for a decision, expected later this year. They're busy targeting these small, well-meaning programs, as well as scholarships and internships directed exclusively at minorities, charging that in "excluding" whites and Asian-Americans, these programs are violating federal civil rights laws.

The groups have such names as the American Civil Rights Institute and the Center for Equal Opportunity. When they spot a program that's race-specific, they dispatch a letter demanding that it be open to all. Failing that, they formally complain to a sympathetic U.S. Office of Civil Rights. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported recently that OCR already has persuaded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to change the admissions policies of two summer programs and that other campuses - perhaps hundreds of them - will find race-exclusive programs under legal attack.

The groups won't disclose which colleges have received letters, but the list includes some fine institutions: Cornell, Indiana, Iowa State, the University of Missouri at Columbia and Carnegie Mellon.

If the colleges want to keep the programs or scholarships in place, they'll probably have to open them to all races. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County did this with its Meyerhoff Scholars program seven years ago. The program, which continues to turn out talented African-Americans in science and engineering, is open to all, but applicants must pledge an interest in the "advancement of minorities in the sciences and related fields." It's an ingenious solution that other schools might consider.

The irony of the campaign to wipe out affirmative action is that the intent of academic-preparation programs is to render unnecessary race-conscious admissions policies at schools such as Michigan. If bright minority students get a lift before college, they won't need affirmative action to gain admission. As a defiant Mary Jo Dively, Carnegie Mellon's lawyer, told The Chronicle, "It strikes me as quite disingenuous ... for them to be attacking the very solutions to the problems they describe."

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