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Justice Department Threatens Suit Over Southern Illinois University’s Minority Fellowships

Justice Department Threatens Suit Over Southern Illinois University’s Minority Fellowships

Federal prosecutors are threatening to sue Southern Illinois University over three graduate school scholarship programs aimed at women and minorities, saying they are discriminatory.

SIU “has engaged in a pattern or practice of intentional discrimination against Whites, non-preferred minorities and males,” the Justice Department said in a letter.

The graduate scholarships, or fellowships, violate Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the department contends. The letter demands SIU discontinue the fellowship programs or face a lawsuit from the Justice Department’s civil rights division.

One U.S. senator from Illinois says the move may be more about boosting President Bush’s sagging approval ratings than about discrimination.

“It strikes me as a completely unnecessary and divisive move and one that I think may be pretty cynical in its motive,” Democratic Sen. Barack Obama says.

Bush’s popularity has been eroding steadily in the face of continued casualties in Iraq, the highly contentious U.S. Supreme Court nominations and the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The president’s approval rating is now at 37 percent in the latest AP-Ipsos poll, the lowest in his presidency.

SIU Chancellor Walter V. Wendler denied the fellowships are discriminatory and says he supports the programs. He says the university recently sent a letter to federal officials asking for a meeting.

The programs, dubbed the Proactive Recruitment and Multicultural Professionals for Tomorrow fellowships and the Bridge to the Doctorate fellowships, are aimed at increasing enrollment of minorities in graduate programs where they are underrepresented. The Proactive program, begun in 2000, has aided 78 students, while the Bridge program, begun last year, has aided 24 students.

A third program, the Graduate Dean’s fellowships, are aimed at women and minorities who have overcome adverse social, cultural or economic conditions. It was started in 2000 and has aided 27 students.

“I don’t think that discriminates against Whites, but that’s what we need to talk to [federal officials] about,” says Wendler, adding that the school has “lots of other fellowship programs open to everyone.”

Just less than 8 percent of SIU’s 5,500 graduate students are Black or Hispanic. University spokeswoman Sue Davis says that the programs have helped improve the school’s diversity and are similar to those at other schools nationwide.

In June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a general affirmative action policy at the University of Michigan law school but struck down the university’s undergraduate formula as too rigid because it awarded admission points based on race.

One expert says the Justice Department’s argument could be bolstered by the ruling.

“The court said you can’t categorize people purely by race,” says Mark W. Cordes, a law professor at Northern Illinois University. “The same thing would apply to a fellowship. At that point, you aren’t treating people as individuals.”

The Center for Equal Opportunity, after months of dialogue with SIU about the fellowships, eventually, protested to the Justice Department.
“There’s no question in my mind that what Southern Illinois is doing is illegal,” says the center’s general counsel, Roger Clegg. “It’s actually, I think, long overdue for the government to make it clear to universities that they cannot engage in illegal discrimination.”

— Associated Press

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