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Vest opposes scholarship ruling

By Brian Rosenberg

A recent ruling by the United States Department of Education may prevent MIT from providing any scholarships awarded on the basis of race. The ruling, issued in late December, prohibits recipients of Education Department funds from participating in "race-exclusive scholarships."

The ruling drew criticism from black political leaders and college administrators. Many people, including President Charles M. Vest, have called for its repeal.

Michael Williams, assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education, issued the ruling in response to a decision by the Fiesta Bowl to offer $200,000 in minority scholarships to the universities of Louisville and Alabama.

Williams advised bowl officials in a letter that if "the Fiesta Bowl is a strictly private entity that receives no federal financial assistance, it can award race-exclusive scholarships directly to students. However, the universities that those students attend may not directly . . . assist the Fiesta Bowl in the award of those scholarships."

A later clarification of the ruling stated that the regulations will be enforced so that privately-funded scholarships restricted to minority students will be allowed. But "private universities receiving federal funds may not fund race-exclusive scholarships with their own funds," the clarification states.

Scholarships that have already been awarded, "whether in the current year or in a multi-year cycle," will be not affected in any way, the clarification states. Because of this restriction, the Education Department is providing a four-year transition period to establish the policy.

Judy J. Pitts, director of the Office of Minority Education, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

President Vest is firmly against the policy. "As an engineer," he said, "when I see problems that need to be solved, I recognize the need for certain tools with which to solve them, and in the area of bringing more under-represented minority students into higher education, scholarship aid is often a very important tool."

"The federal government could therefore be helpful by clearly and forthrightly reversing the recent ruling. To turn away from the concept of affirmative action is just dead wrong," Vest said.

There will be "no change in the ruling's status until more study is done by the Civil Rights Office," Rodger Murphey, media contact for the Department of Education, said.

It remains unclear at the Institute whether the ruling applies only to scholarships that are awarded solely on the basis of race, Vest indicated. "We have graduate fellowships that are geared to minority students, but include a measure of need as well. My understanding is that those would be alright, but there's still a question," he said.

MIT student reaction to the ruling varied. An African-American student who wished to remain anonymous said, "I have mixed feelings. Does America want to judge itself on what it wants to be or what it is? If we're going to say this is a meritocracy, then we shouldn't have these scholarships. But we are not at that point yet."

"The truth is, even if I had a middle-class or upper middle-class upbringing, I would have had to face obstacles that my white counterparts didn't," the student said.