Michael Mello, newsday.com, Mar. 20
BRISTOL, R.I. — On the sleepy coastal campus of Roger Williams University, a small liberal arts school unaccustomed to student activism, the College Republicans are reveling in the debate they’ve kicked up by offering a scholarship for whites only.
The $250 award — which required an essay on “why you are proud of your white heritage” and a recent picture to “confirm whiteness” — has invited the wrath of everyone from minority groups and school officials to the chairman of the Republican National Committee himself.
Jason Mattera, a junior who started the conservative campus group in his freshman year, said kindling debate over free speech and affirmative action was just what he wanted — and he promises more.
“We did our job,” said Mattera, 20, of Brooklyn, N.Y. “This is what college is all about, challenging the status quo.”
They did such a good job that school President Roy Nirschel, who has clashed with the group before, cut short a trip to Vietnam last month to begin what he called “a healing process” — including forming a commission on civil discourse.
The 35-member group first went toe-to-toe with university administration last year over a series of monthly newsletter articles accusing homosexuals of squelching free speech by pushing for hate-crimes legislation. The articles alleged that a well-known gay-rights group indoctrinates students into homosexual sex.
The administration froze the College Republicans’ money for two days. Nirschel said in turn, he received threatening letters claiming he was suppressing the group.
Then another article critical of Kwanzaa, which celebrates the history and heritage of Africa, sparked a complaint by a multicultural student group.
Before the Student Senate had a chance to deal with that issue, the College Republicans came up with the whites-only scholarship.
The application for the $250 award required an essay on “why you are proud of your white heritage” and a recent picture to “confirm whiteness.”
“Evidence of bleaching will disqualify applicants,” read the application.
Mattera, who is of Puerto Rican descent, said the scholarship was a parody of minority scholarships. Mattera himself was awarded a $5,000 scholarship from the Hispanic College Fund, he said.
“Those who come from white (descent) are left to find scholarships on their own,” Mattera said.
The whites-only scholarship generated national publicity, which angered university officials and many students who worried their school was being labeled as racist. Minorities make up less than 10 percent of the 3,400 full-time undergraduates.
Some minorities on campus, like Maria Ahmed, a 20-year-old junior from Providence, felt targeted.
“At first it was about the newspaper, just about every issue they were bashing some small minority group,” said Ahmed, whose parents were born in Nigeria. “It’s hard being a minority on campus, and it felt like (they) were directly talking about you.”
The scholarship was criticized by the state Republican Party and Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee. In a Feb. 17 letter to Mattera, Gillespie said the scholarship conveys a “message of exclusion” that doesn’t represent the party’s values. He suspended the group’s right to use the party’s symbols.
Nirschel, who says he’s eager to attract more minority students and faculty members, called the scholarship “repugnant” and convened a town meeting on campus he said attracted more than 500 people.
The meeting, he said, was the first of its kind in the university’s history.
His commission on civil discourse includes faculty and student members and has already decided to organize a debate team and create a journal. “This has caused me to redouble our efforts to make the campus open,” Nirschel said.
Mattera’s cause has seen plenty of support, too.
Increased donations raised the scholarship, which was initially only supposed to be for $50, to $250. The American Civil Liberties Union backed the group’s right to free speech after the Student Senate considered taking away its funding after the scholarship was awarded to Adam Noska, a 21-year-old junior from Weymouth, Mass. The Senate set aside the issue.
Some students just liked the idea of a whites-only scholarship.
“Nothing gets to me more than affirmative action,” said Jamie Pattison, 19, a sophomore from Marblehead, Mass. “People want handouts.”
Despite initial plans to make the scholarship annual, Mattera said it won’t be offered next year.
“We’ll continue to fight affirmative action … but I think I made the point,” he said.