The latest assault on the higher education
establishment’s affirmative action programs is over an obscure, $500
private scholarship for minority students at a community college in
The small amount of the scholarship belies what some national
experts believe could become a billion-dollar rout with far-reaching
consequences for minority students all across the country. Because they
enroll many minority students, community colleges and historically
Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) stand to lose the most.
The case trails a string of well-publicized controversies from
California and Texas reversing everything from minority admissions and
student outreach programs to financial aid and faculty hiring. But this
challenge is unprecedented not only because it originated at a
community college but because it delves into the murky matter of
private, not public funds.
“Everyone is very antsy about this,” says Everett V. Eberhardt, the
coordinator of affirmative action, minority and legal affairs at
Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), “because of the precedent
it could set.
“The question is: If you can challenge this scholarship program, if
it’s illegal to administer these private funds, then the next step is
to challenge funds like the United Negro College Fund and others who
give money to Black colleges,” he said.
Complainant Never Applied
The controversy got its start last May when Christopher Thompson, a
political science student at NOVA, filed a complaint with the U.S.
Education Department which contended that the community college’s
officials were breaking the law by barring white students from applying
for the Leslie V. Forte Scholarship.
The award, named after the college’s first Black English professor,
gives $500 a semester to up to five minority students to encourage them
to be active in campus life.
“The students who receive these scholarships are symbols for our
college. We think they make great role models for other students,” said
Eberhardt. “It encourages students to be successful while they’re here,
to get involved. Statistics show students are more likely to be
successful if they are connected to a college.”
Thompson never applied for the Forte scholarship and college
officials would not say whether or not he receives any of the
approximately $12 million in financial aid which NOVA hands out each
year. But, said Eberhardt, “I question whether a student who does not
receive one $500 scholarship out of all this money is somehow being
precluded from attending [Northern Virginia]”.
Nevertheless, Thompson, in his complaint to the Department of
Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), cites a 1994 ruling by the
Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — the same circuit court that has
jurisdiction over Virginia — that ended a University of Maryland
scholarship program limited to Blacks. The one difference is that the
program, the Benjamin Banneker Scholarship, used public money, whereas
the Northern Virginia program is entirely supported through private
funds. But Thompson claims the Forte scholarship still should be
prohibited because it is administered by the state and because the
college selects the scholarship recipients.
“There have been a lot of court cases over the past twenty years,
and they all say the same thing but in different ways: The government
cannot be involved — even a little bit — in something that favors one
race over the other unless the reason is to specifically remedy past
discrimination,” said John Montgomery, the student’s attorney. “But it
has to be narrowly tailored and you can’t just do it because you think
one particular group is at a social disadvantage. And whether you agree
with that or not, the Supreme Court has said over and over again that
is the law.”
Representatives of OCR plan to visit the college this month as part
of an ongoing review of the matter. Spokesman Roger Murphy says that he
doesn’t know how long it will take the office to make a decision and
that both sides have the right to appeal the outcome to the U.S.
Secretary of Education. If federal officials rule against Northern
Virginia and the college refuses to comply with the ruling, the federal
government could curtail funding to the school.
Meanwhile, college administrators quietly have called in the Virginia Attorney General’s office to help defend their stance.
And the two attorneys hired by the student who complained that the
college is violating his constitutional rights say they’re prepared to
take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I didn’t even know there were any race-specific scholarships any
more,” said Montgomery. “I thought they were very much out of fashion.”
“Dumbfounded, but … Not Surprised”
Northern Virginia Community College, set here in the well-to-do
suburbs west of Washington, D.C., would seem an unlikely setting for
such a controversy. It is a typical suburban college, with more than
60,000 students spread over five campuses. It draws a strong mix of
students from all backgrounds and has never had a major race problem.
The college’s diverse student body is 61.3 percent white, 13.5 percent
African American, 12.8 percent Asian, 7.9 percent Hispanic, .9 percent
Native American and 3.9 percent other.
“I’m just dumbfounded,” said Merle Thompson, the assistant division
chair for English who knew Leslie V. Forte, for whom the scholarship is
named, but was unaware that the scholarship was being challenged. “But
I guess I’m not surprised because it seems like that’s the way things
are moving today.”
Patricia Knight Gary, a mathematics instructor and former chair of
the college’s affirmative action-minority recruitment team, said the
challenge “makes me very angry. There has been so much attention in
this arena. It appears to be a major hysteria, or fear, of more
minority students gaining access to colleges and universities.”
Nicole Lucas is one of five students who received the $500 award
this year. The interior design student, who recently received a college
award for her leadership on the Loudoun campus of the community
college, said that receiving the Forte scholarship “was a great
opportunity.” The award tells students that “if they strive hard, it’s
possible to succeed,” she said.
Another recipient, Carmen Allen, described herself as a “disabled
veteran single mother of two” for whom the Forte scholarship was meant
a great deal. “This is a way to defray the cost that are not covered by
other scholarships.” Although her tuition and fees and required books
are paid for by her veterans benefits, she said, babysitting costs for
her children while she attends school and works two part-time jobs is
“It’s extremely important,” she said of the scholarship.
According to Michael A. Olivas, a University of Houston law
professor and authority on college affirmative action, a case in
Washington, D.C., dealt with the very same issue twenty-five years ago.
But, he said, it was trumped by the 1978 Bakke decision in which the
U.S. Supreme Court struck down racial quotas but said that race still
could be used as a factor in college admissions.
“This issue of private scholarship money administered by public
colleges hasn’t arisen in any other circuit,” said Olivas, the author
of a book titled The Law and Higher Education. “My guess is it will be
found to be against the law in that particular circuit.”
Others have refused to speculate about what will happen. Officials
with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
(NAACP), the conservative Center for Individual Rights, and the
Washington Legal Foundation all declined comment.
Even if NOVA loses, it is uncertain how much in scholarship money
could be in jeopardy. According to The College Board, federal and state
governments awarded $46.8 billion in student aid in 1994-95. And
although the New York-based organization does not track private
minority scholarship money, it did note that private scholarships
amounted to $9.06 billion during that period. Of that, College Board
officials say, from $4 billion to $5 billion comes in the form of
private scholarship money that is not directly administered by higher
The sources of all those dollars range from big-money donors like
actor Bill Cosby, large corporations and organizations like the NAACP
and The College Fund/UNCF to community churches and alumni. Eberhardt
believes a decision against the college could have a detrimental affect
on donations and claims that one concerned major donor already has
questioned college officials closely.
“If this is struck down, it will have a chilling effect,” Eberhardt
says. “People want to be able to give their $5, $10 or $25 to a college
for a certain cause and be done with it. If we start putting them
through a lot of rigmarole — if they now have to go out and set up a
foundation and hire a director and or call the college and solicit
names of students they can give to — they’ll just say, `Forget it.'”
COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com