Not Just for Minority Students Anymore
Fearing charges of discrimination, colleges open minority scholarships and programs to students of all races
Peter Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education, Mar. 19
[Note: Click on headline to see a list of formerly minority-exclusive programs that have now been opened to whites as well.]
Carnegie Mellon University may care deeply about its minority students, but, as of last month, it no longer cares to assume the legal risks associated with offering scholarships and programs specifically for them.
It is hardly alone in that respect.
Colleges throughout the nation are quietly opening a wide range of minority programs to students of any race, mainly to avoid being accused of discrimination.
In addition, several nonprofit organizations and federal agencies have recently made, or are considering, similar changes. Among them, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has changed the criteria for a major fellowship program to allow nonminority participation. The National Institutes of Health has already opened at least one minority program to participants of any race and appears poised to open several others. And the National Merit Scholarship Corporation has discontinued a program that asked colleges to sponsor scholarships for black students, in part because fewer colleges were willing to participate.
At least in name, minority programs are rapidly disappearing from college campuses. Colleges are dropping the word “minority” from the titles of scholarships and fellowships — as well as recruitment, orientation, and academic-enrichment programs — and opening them to populations that they had excluded. The goal of most of the programs remains helping black, Hispanic, and American Indian students succeed in higher education, but now colleges must be willing to include white and Asian students in the mix.
Most colleges have made the changes only recently and, as a result, have no idea whether the programs’ racial composition will differ. It is also unclear whether such changes will sidetrack the programs from their original missions, or cause them to lose public or philanthropic support.
William H. Gray III, the departing president of the United Negro College Fund, calls the challenges to the legality of such programs “a blatant attempt to narrow the doorway of access for minorities.” He says he worries that financially needy minority students will lose access to scholarships now that white students can compete for them, and “without this financial help, they probably will not go to some of the most prestigious and elite universities.”
But Theodore M. Shaw, associate director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, says it is too early to tell what the impact will be.
“We have to wait and see the numbers where they have made the change,” he says. “The jury is going to be out until we find out if there is any significant change in the number of minority students who are being reached.”
Just a year ago, things were much different. While a small number of colleges had already abandoned race-exclusive programs, most argued that the programs were on solid legal ground or, at worst, that the law governing them was unclear. The paucity of court rulings dealing with their legality fed the confusion.
In 1994 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down a scholarship program for black students at the University of Maryland at College Park. But later that year, the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights issued legal guidelines that made most race-exclusive scholarship programs appear permissible.
The current leaders of the civil-rights office, mostly staunch critics of affirmative action, sent mixed signals as well. While they expressed no desire to revisit the office’s 1994 guidelines, they nonetheless started investigating race-exclusive programs and issued a statement saying, “Generally, programs that use race or national origin as sole eligibility criteria are extremely difficult to defend.”
Carnegie Mellon responded defiantly early last year when its academic summer camp for minority students was challenged by two advocacy groups that oppose racial preferences, the Center for Equal Opportunity and the American Civil Rights Institute. The university’s general counsel, Mary Jo Dively, declared that she was “not going to take the word of some outside group that presumes to tell Carnegie Mellon what to do,” and planned, instead, to wait for the federal courts to offer guidance.
That guidance came last June, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided two lawsuits involving race-conscious admissions policies of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The rulings initially were heralded as a major victory for affirmative action because the court had accepted Michigan’s basic argument that the educational benefits of diversity justified the consideration of race in college-admissions decisions.
The court also held, however, that colleges must treat students as individuals, and not accept or reject them from programs based solely on their skin color. That finding troubled college lawyers as they considered what the court’s decisions meant in areas beyond admissions.
By late last fall, many colleges’ lawyers were questioning whether their institutions could still offer scholarships and other programs solely for members of certain racial and ethnic groups. Many concluded that the answer was no. In recent months, those doubts have translated into a widespread retreat from race-exclusivity.
Ms. Dively says: “When I looked at the Michigan cases and read them carefully, my conclusion, as I think has been the conclusion of practically every scholar around the country and every general counsel with whom I have talked, is that race-exclusive programs — except in certain extreme factual circumstances — are not likely to withstand a legal challenge.”
The exceptions, she says, are mainly programs that arose in response to special legal situations, such as those set up to settle desegregation cases.
Last month Carnegie Mellon officials decided to open the university’s summer camp to white and Asian students who demonstrate that they can contribute to the campus’s diversity. (The total number of high-school students at the camp will remain unchanged, at 100.) The university also opened a full-tuition, minority-scholarship program to white and Asian students who show they can contribute to campus diversity, and ended its policy of giving black, Hispanic, and American Indian students an edge when awarding need-based student aid.
Similar changes have been made in recent weeks by Harvard University’s business school and by Yale University’s undergraduate college. In a letter to Yale’s students, Richard H. Brodhead, that college’s dean, said the Supreme Court’s rulings in the Michigan cases had made it “harder to justify programs that separate student communities instead of building them into an interactive whole.”
Both Harvard and Yale changed their programs after being contacted by the Center for Equal Opportunity and the American Civil Rights Institute, which is headed by Ward Connerly, a University of California regent who helped lead successful campaigns for ballot measures banning racial preferences in California and Washington State.
“I think we have been helped by the fact that so many prestigious institutions have agreed with us that racially exclusive programs need to be changed,” says Roger B. Clegg, the Center for Equal Opportunity’s general counsel. “I think that that provides some reassurances to other schools that what we are asking is well founded, and that it makes good educational sense.”
“We make it very clear that we are not asking that these programs be ended,” Mr. Clegg says. “We are simply asking that they be made open to students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Students who have lacked opportunities come in all colors.”
The two advocacy groups have jointly written to about 100 colleges, almost all since early 2003, threatening to file complaints with the federal Office for Civil Rights if the colleges continue to operate race-exclusive programs. Initially the groups based their arguments on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination by any institution, public or private, that receives federal funds. After the Supreme Court ruled in the Michigan cases, the groups’ letters began citing those opinions as well.
Mr. Clegg refuses to name most of the colleges that the groups have contacted, saying “we are not trying to humiliate anybody.” Rather, he prefers to let colleges decide on their own whether to discuss the complaints. He confirms, however, that about 70 colleges have responded by either opening up their programs or by informing the two groups that their complaints are based on outdated information, and that the programs in question have already been changed.
A Few Holdouts
Most of the other colleges contacted by the groups — including Colorado State and Cornell Universities, and the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania — are still conducting legal reviews. In some cases involving privately endowed scholarships, colleges cannot make changes without first getting permission from donors.
But most colleges have not given any indication that they plan to defend programs that are race exclusive. Laurence Pendleton, associate general counsel at Colorado State, says, “It appears that, under the Michigan cases, race exclusivity will not pass legal muster.”
Two other colleges, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Saint Louis University, initially refused the demands of the two advocacy groups, but then backed down after the Office for Civil Rights became involved. Only two colleges, Pepperdine University and Washington University in St. Louis, have refused to alter scholarship programs that have been challenged by the two advocacy groups and brought to the attention of the Office for Civil Rights.
Pepperdine’s resistance has struck some observers as a paradox, given its deep ties to the conservative movement. Officials at the university, which is affiliated with the Church of Christ, say they are defending their scholarship program because it is consistent with both the law and the school’s Christian philosophy.
“It’s our responsibility, given our Chris-tian mission, to be not a white island but to reflect the diversity around us,” says W. David Baird, dean of Pepperdine’s undergraduate college.
Meanwhile, the University of Missouri at Columbia changed some programs for black students to include all “underrepresented minority students,” while keeping them off limits to white applicants. Mr. Clegg has termed its response inadequate, but had not filed a federal complaint as of last week.
Many colleges have acted without any outside prodding to open what had been minority programs to students of all races.
Thomas H. Parker, dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst College, says that he decided to open a weekend campus-visitation program to low-income white students after attending workshops on the Supreme Court’s Michigan rulings sponsored by Harvard University and the College Board. At both, Mr. Parker says, he asked panelists about Amherst’s campus-visit program for minority students and was told “that could now be challenged, and we could well lose.”
Amherst is now working with the College Board and three other New England institutions — Wellesley College, Wesleyan University, and Williams College — to find new ways of using information gathered from takers of the PSAT and SAT tests to recruit academically talented students from low-income areas.
Like Amherst, other colleges are keeping their programs focused on helping the disadvantaged, and are altering them to advance that goal. Most are requiring that nonminority applicants fit one of two profiles: Either they come from low-income households or families with little college experience, or they demonstrate a commitment to promoting racial diversity by, for example, tutoring minority children or working to improve race relations in their communities.
Thomas R. Tritton, president of Haverford College, says administrators there will consider letting white students participate in his institution’s summer pre-orientation program for minority students but would probably reject any applicant who seemed to oppose affirmative action and to be applying “to make the ideological point that this is a bad program.”
He says the mission of the program, which is operated jointly with Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr Colleges and rotates among the three campuses, is to help “students find their voices and assume leadership roles,” and that the students who participate tend to fare better in college than those who don’t.
Mr. Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity argues that colleges are still engaging in racial discrimination if they operate programs that require white and Asian applicants to come from disadvantaged backgrounds or show a commitment to diversity, but don’t make the same demands of black, Hispanic, or American Indian students.
If a program’s criteria on views toward diversity essentially amount to a requirement that applicants “sign a pledge of allegiance to political correctness,” the program could be challenged on First Amendment grounds, Mr. Clegg says.
Mr. Shaw of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund says he does not mind when colleges open minority programs to nonminority students to be less legally vulnerable, as long as the same number of minority students continues to be served. “Prudence would dictate that if you can narrow the target without sacrificing your objectives, then, for God’s sake, do it,” he says.
Ripples and Resistance
Several of the colleges that have been challenged over minority programs have argued that the programs are financed by federal agencies that require them to be racially exclusive.
When Indiana University received a complaint against a program for aspiring minority medical researchers at its Cancer Center, in Indianapolis, it sought guidance from the National Cancer Institute, which had awarded a grant for the program. What followed was a change in federal policy: The National Cancer Institute now gives grantees the option of applying the term “underrepresented minority” to subsets of the nation’s white and Asian population that produce relatively few cancer researchers, such as those who are low-income or represent the first generation in their family to complete college.
Donald M. Ralbovsky, a spokesman for the National Institutes of Health, says his agency is reviewing all of its race-exclusive programs “in light of the recent changes in the legal landscape,” even as it recognizes the need for more minority researchers in various scientific fields.
Lawrence Rudolph, general counsel at the National Science Foundation, says it has been several years since his agency had programs solely for minority students. A 1980 federal law directs the NSF to operate programs that increase minority representation in the sciences, but “no matter what statute is on the books, it still must be implemented in a constitutionally permissible manner.”
Nonprofit organizations that help minority students continue to mull over, and disagree on, whether the legal environment has changed.
The Supreme Court’s Michigan decisions prompted the Mellon foundation to change the criteria for its minority undergraduate-fellowship program, which serves 34 individual colleges and a consortium of 38 historically black colleges and universities. The program, which provides students with faculty mentors and financial support, was altered last July to allow fellowships to go to white applicants who appear committed to the program’s mission of increasing minority representation in college faculties.
“When the decision was made to extend the criteria, we had in mind that we did not want to subject the colleges and universities to unnecessary risk,” says Michele S. Warman, the foundation’s general counsel and secretary.
The National Merit Scholarship Corporation decided last fall to halt a program that asked colleges to award scholarships to about 200 black students annually, and to try to take up the slack by expanding a National Merit-financed scholarship program for black students. Elaine S. Detweiler, a spokeswoman for the organization, says, “The number of college sponsors was declining,” at least partly because of the associated legal risks.
The Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, which consists of 13 business schools interested in increasing their minority representation, is said by members to be considering a change in its minority-fellowship program. However, its executive director, Peter J. Aranda III, says, “It’s really premature to say what might happen, if anything.”
Many other nonprofit organizations are standing by their minority programs. Those that use private funds, or work directly with students, without involving colleges, appear most confident that they remain on solid legal ground.
Mr. Gray of the United Negro College Fund says no changes are being considered in any of the scholarship programs administered by his organization, including the Gates Millennium Scholars program, which will distribute $1-billion to minority students over 20 years. He denounces the assaults on race-exclusive scholarship programs as racist, pointing out that no complaints are being lodged against the many privately financed scholarships for members of various white ethnic groups, such as Italian-, Norwegian-, and Polish-Americans.
Also standing by its programs is the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships to minority students and grants to the colleges that serve them.
Daryl Chubin, the group’s senior vice president, says that the Fortune 500 executives who make up most of the council’s governing board “are resolute in their support of the way we do business,” and “would lose their enthusiasm” for the group if it began serving nonminority students.
“It would make it hard for us to do what we do,” he says. “It might make it impossible.”