O.C.R. Officials Defend Minority-Scholarship Policy

By Mark Pitsch — March 27, 1991 4 min read
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Two top officials of the Education Department’s office for civil rights last week defended before a Congressional panel a policy that declared race-based scholarships illegal under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But they also said the policy, which has been rescinded by Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, was under development before they arrived at the agency and was not initiated by the assistant secretary for civil rights, Michael L. Williams, who has been sharply criticized for it.

Richard D. Komer assumed the position of deputy assistant secretary for policy in April 1990, and Mr. Williams took office three months later. At hearings before the House Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations Subcommittee, both officials denied implications by the panel’s chairman, Representative Ted Weiss, Democrat of New York, that Mr. Komer had consulted with the conservative Washington Legal Foundation as the minority-scholarship policy was being developed and that he had pushed Mr. Williams to adopt it.

“To suggest that the white boy runs the office and the brother just sits there and lets him run it is offensive to me, and, I believe, racist at best,” Mr. Williams, who is black, said.

Also last week, Mr. Alexander described the process through which the department would review the issue. He said he expected to formulate a policy on race-exclusive scholarships over the next six months after soliciting information and suggestions from colleges and universities and analyzing Title VI with aid from the Justice Department. Guidelines will be published, he said, and schools will be assisted in making any necessary changes to their programs.

Until a decision is announced, Mr. Alexander said, colleges should “keep on doing what they’re doing.”

He said the department would not make any enforcement decisions until the new policy was developed.

Mr. Alexander asserted that while he would not say what legal interpretation he would favor, “I want to make it absolutely clear we are in the business of helping disadvantaged minorities go to college.”

In a related development, the Washington Legal Foundation filed a suit here last week in U.S. District Court demanding that the depart department issue and enforce regulations declaring race-exclusive scholarships illegal.

Denial of Opportunity Seen

The suit contends that seven white students who are co-plaintiffs were illegally denied the opportunity to receive scholarships from their schools or state education agencies because the U.S. Education Department had not issued a firm policy on race-based scholarships.

Had scholarship money not been set aside for minorities, the suit contends, the white students “likely would be required to devote a smaller percent of [their] own financial resources to meeting [their] educational expenses.”

The furor over the Education Department’s position on minority scholarships erupted in mid-December after Mr. Williams sent a letter to officials managing the Fiesta Bowl, who had planned to donate 100,000 to the participating colleges for scholarships intended for black students.

Mr. Williams said last week that he was trying to warn the schools that the plan could conflict with the policy then under development.

Higher-education officials and politicians viewed the letter as an effort to change a policy that they thought had operated smoothly for decades.

After a firestorm of controversy erupted, Mr. Williams modified his interpretation, saying that colleges could administer race-based scholarships funded by private sources.

Testimony Under Pressure

Until last week, Administration officials had been silent on the issue since Mr. Williams’s “clarifying” statement on Dec. 18. Mr. Williams testified after Mr. Weiss threatened to subpoena him. Mr. Komer, who testified a day later, was subpoenaed after he did not appear with Mr. Williams.

Mr. Komer said he had urged Mr. Williams not to send the Fiesta Bowl letter, and to make a phone call instead. Mr. Komer said he agreed with Mr. Williams’s legal interpretation, but feared “we would get a significant amount of public interest in what we were about to say, and we weren’t ready to deal with that.”

Throughout the hearings, Mr. Leiss charged that Mr. Williams had tried to change department policy without subjecting the changes to public comment, a standard part of the regulatory process.

Mr. Williams, Mr. Komer, and Mr. Alexander all contended that the department’s policy on race-based scholarships had been inconsistent over the past decade.

And the two OCR officials said that a change in the department’s interpretation of civil-rights law does not necessarily require the formal adoption of regulations.

In an effort to link the policy with the WLF, Mr. Weiss noted that Mr. Komer had mailed a memo dated May 1, 1990, to a regional civil-rights official in Atlanta suggesting an investigation of scholarships for black students at Florida Atlantic University, and that the foundation had filed a complaint against the university nine days later. Mr. Komer denied ever speaking with anyone at the WLF, but did not rule out the possibility that someone else in the civil-rights office had.

A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 1991 edition of Education Week as O.C.R. Officials Defend Minority-Scholarship Policy

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