Federal File

April 23, 1997 2 min read

Cantu redo on race-based admissions

Criticized by conservatives and congressional Republicans and contradicted by lawyers within the Democratic administration, the Department of Education’s top civil rights enforcer has backed off a controversial affirmative action stance.

Norma V. Cantu, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, softened her views on April 11 after previously telling Texas officials that they risked losing federal funds if the state’s universities did not offer scholarships to correct past race discrimination.

In a March letter, Ms. Cantu had narrowly interpreted a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, saying it applied only to the University of Texas law school. That advice conflicted with the advice of the state attorney general, who said the decision--which barred consideration of race as a factor in admissions--applied to all schools in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Then, on April 10, the Department of Justice wrote to the Education Department, saying that Justice interpreted the appellate court’s ruling as “binding precedent” for all state institutions in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi--the three states the 5th Circuit court oversees.

A day later, congressional Republicans added their two cents. “We are concerned that institutions of higher education in ... Texas and elsewhere have little reliable guidance upon which to base decisions regarding the structure of their admissions, financial aid, and retention programs,” four GOP congressmen who head subcommittees of the House Education and the Workforce Committee wrote to Ms. Cantu.

The same day, Ms. Cantu wrote Texas officials again. This time, she said the department expects Texas to “voluntarily” find solutions to past bias and that the federal government won’t require the state to engage in “race-conscious affirmative action.’'

“She likes to resolve issues informally,” said Terence J. Pell, a lawyer for the Washington-based Center for Individual Rights, which represents the white students in Hopwood v. Texas.

The result is that Ms. Cantu’s team often wins concessions it “couldn’t possibly get if they had to go to court,” Mr. Pell said.

“Local officials want to get [the office for civil rights] off their back as quickly as possible and tend to agree with whatever is necessary to bring the investigation to a close,” he said.