White House Takes Heat for Furor Over Minority Scholarship Policy

Congress members are expected to press for return to former system

MORE heat than light now surrounds the wreckage of the Bush administration's policy changes on the legality of minority scholarships. Supporters of minority scholarships are angry that the administration even tried to change the 25-year-old concept of reserving some college scholarships for minorities.

Opponents are provoked that the administration had backed water after the initial change.

Initially, Assistant Education Secretary Michael Williams had said any college that no college receiving federal funds could legally award race-specific scholarships because they discriminate on the basis of race. After enormous protests he later said minority scholarships are legal if funded by earmarked private donations but illegal if financed by a college's own funds or government money. Mr. Williams said colleges and universities would be permitted a four-year transition period in which to change their procedures.

The convoluted approach and the confusion that ensued once again inspired a spate of renewed assertions that the Bush White House has no clear domestic agenda, and that this debacle was the fault of White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, the favorite lightning rod in this administration for criticism on domestic issues.

``The administration is facing a very serious backlash in its own ranks on this question'' of minority scholarships, says Speaker of the House Thomas Foley.

The final Williams announcement left educators and many members of Congress confused and determined to fight for a return to minority scholarships, however funded. They are necessary to achieve the important national goals of moving more blacks and other minorities into the mainstream of both higher education and the educated work force, backers say.

Educators were not consulted in advance, says Robert Atwell, president of the American Council on Education, an umbrella association of public and private colleges. ``It's an incongruous situation,'' he says. ``It's OK to go out and raise private money, but you can't use your own money. When you go out and try to raise money, they want to know what you're prepared to do'' - how much of its own money a college is willing to use for minority scholarships.

Dr. Atwell says money for the majority of minority scholarships comes from colleges' own funds or from government grants.

Several Congressional education committee members want to know what the administration is prepared to do to scrap the new policy. The House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing last week at which educators denounced the change. Early next year the committee is expected to further examine the issue. The likelihood is that many House and Senate members will press the administration to return the policy to what it has been.

At the confirmation hearings early in 1991 of Lamar Alexander, President Bush's nominee as Education Secretary, senators plan to grill Mr. Alexander on his views about minority scholarships. In addition, the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee is expected to hold January hearings. Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, a committee member, wants to find out four things, an aide says: What the latest ruling actually means, why the decision was taken, why the administration held no prior consultations with educators or other experts, and why it felt a need to change long-standing rules.

Important as this specific information is, ``the most important lesson from all this is not about the specifics of the case,'' says Douglas Besharov, a lawyer and social scientist at the American Enterprise Institute. ``It is that in the highly charged atmosphere in which this administration is operating, you do not have an assistant secretary making key decisions about social policies.''

Once the heat of the moment has ebbed, the issue of racially specific scholarships may be examined with more light. Dr. Besharov says there are things to be said on both sides.

One is the degree to which designated scholarships make minorities feel welcome at colleges. A year ago Besharov studied the racial composition of the armed forces and learned that the Army was approximately 30 percent black but that the Air Force and Navy had far lower percentages of minority members.

He said the reason so many black Americans had joined the Army, according to experts, is that they ``feel welcomed by the Army. ... I think that's an important message. If these scholarships have the effect of making young blacks feel welcome in college ... then we should all be supportive of them. It's an outreach program.''

At the same time, Besharov said he is ``very nervous about institutionalizing a race-conscious diversity.... One would hope that in the long run ... we would have scholarships that are for low-income Americans - period.''

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