Community college becomes battleground for complaint about privately funded scholarship – Northern Virginia Community CollegeJune 23, 2007 |
by Esmeralda Barnes
A white male student at Northern Virginia Community College is charging that a minority scholarship program at the school violates his constitutional rights, pointing to a federal court ruling that banned a university from awarding publicly-funded scholarships exclusively to African Americans.
“As a student at Northern Virginia Community College…. I wish to file a civil rights complaint that this institution discriminates against white male and female students by continuing to offer race and ethnicity-based scholarships that appear unconstitutional,” wrote Christopher Thompson, a political science student at the Annandale campus, in a May 26 filing to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S.
Department of Education. The focus of his complaint is the Leslie V. Forte Scholarship, a privately funded program named after the first Black professor of English at NVCC. The Forte scholarship offers five recipients $500 a year and is one of two minority scholarships at NVCC out of more than 100 scholarships at the college.
In an August 28 filing to OCR, the college responded: “NVCC believes that affirmative action is a means to an end. It is a tool which we temporarily employ to help the college achieve its ultimate goal of providing equal educational opportunities to all people.”
The scholarship program, which officials say is open to several minority groups, is administered by the NVCC Educational Foundation and housed on NVCC’s campus. Officers of the college’s Affirmative Action/ Minority Affairs offices help select recipients and make announcements to attract candidates.
NVCC officials also sit in on foundation meetings, according to officials. The use of NVCC’s facilities and the involvement of state-paid NVCC officials could make the scholarship more of a “semi-private” program, legal observers say.
Thompson charges that, privately funded or not, NVCC cannot exclude white students from Forte scholarships, based on a 1994 ruling of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that declared the University of Maryland’s Benjamin Banneker Scholarship program illegal because it limited its awards to African Americans.
Students at NVCC, s Annandale campus expressed mixed support for Thompson. Rachel Chakoff, 23, a white student studying radiology, said the program is an example of reverse discrimination. She was denied financial aid because her parents make too much money and the state told her no help is available because she is a white female, Chakoff said.
“As some roads get more easily travelled other roads get blocked,” she said. Lise Easter, a 32 year-old white student of geology disagrees. “I think white students have plenty of opportunities, and they are not missing out.”
The college “respectfully disagree(s)” with Thompson’s assessment of the law, according to NVCC President Richard Ernst in a letter to Virginia State Delegate Toddy Puller, who Thompson contacted on the matter. “Unlike the Banneker Scholarship program, which was limited to Blacks and not available to other minority group students such as Mr. Podberesky (the challenging Maryland student whose heritage is white and Hispanic), NVCC’s Forte Scholarship program is open to members of various racial and ethnic minority groups, Ernst wrote.
George Mason University professor and civil rights attorney Roger Wilkins had this to say: “My own view is that the court (in Maryland) was wrong. It took a narrow view of the harm the state did to Blacks in terms of deprivation of wealth and income and access to higher education. Wealth and income is definitely related to access to higher education.”
Scholarship programs such as NVCC’s Forte are temporary remedies to open up opportunities for minorities, he said. “It seems to compensate for the vast exclusion of Blacks which injured the Black community, depriving it of a thick layer of well-educated leadership,” he argued. “Race-based scholarships are justified on those grounds.”
Thompson claimed that NVCC has no history of discrimination against minorities. But Wilkins Countered: “NVCC may not have a history, but the fact is that the state of Virginia’s institutions of higher learning do, and NVCC is a part of that. The system has an obligation for the damage done.”
Academic Criteria Questioned
Thompson claims that the scholarship’s academic criteria are not high enough. “It is not based on academic merit,” he said. The scholarship — open to African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and those of Eskimo or Aleut origin — requires students to have a grade point average of 2.5 or better, be full-time in the semesters during which the money will be disbursed, write a 250-word essay on his or her goals, and be involved in extracurricular activities.
Everett Vann Eberhardt, head of NVCC’s affirmative action/minority affairs office, said many Forte recipients have 3.0 and above GPAs. The lowest of a Forte recipient was 2.8, and the student eventually transferred to the College of William and Mary, he said, noting the student was involved in many school activities.
OCR will issue a ruling in about a month, according to Roger Murphy, an agency official. If the investigation concludes that NVCC is violating the law, an order will be issued to it to stop the scholarships. If NVCC maintains its current position, OCR could block federal funding for the institution. But before that happens, the case would end up in court, according to Eberhardt.
OCR’s response may hinge on whether it views NVCC’s involvement in the scholarship as
inappropriate for a public institution, said Terry Roach, one of the University of Maryland attorneys who argued the Banneker case. “The $64,000 question is how much state involvement is too much. It’s on that gradient that you find all programs — somewhere between being purely the state’s agency’s [program], or totally removed, or not affiliated with it,” Roach said.
He suspects that NVCC’s involvement is “sufficiently private to where it doesn’t violate the law.” But if questions arise, NVCC must be prepared to show a “compelling state interest” for its involvement, such as remedying past discrimination or diversity, Roach said.
In Maryland, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th circuit rejected the university’s argument that its publicly funded scholarship helped remedy Maryland’s history of discrimination. So most states are looking for other compelling state interests, he said.
The federal 5th circuit ruling in the Hopwood v. State of Texas held that diversity is no longer a compelling state interest, pointed out Richard Weitzner, an assistant attorney general for Maryland. Even though Hopwood, which applied to admissions practices at the University of Texas Law School, did not address scholarships, it sets the tone for how race-targeted policies are handled, he said.
But the federal government in 1994 issued guidance that reaffirmed diversity as a compelling goal for an institution, Weitzner said. The issue is, “how do you know when you’ve reached an adequate level of diversity?” Weitzner added that the answer depends on how OCR sees it.
In his filing, Thompson questioned whether he will get an objective response from OCR. “Now, I know it is the unofficial policy of the Department of Educations Civil Rights staff, where possible, not to support white (deleted word) claims of discrimination…. Nevertheless, I submit this complaint aware that I am not to receive due process under the law due to your liberal political allegiances and desire to allow (NVCC) to continue to give out these racist scholarships.”
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