Bucking a Trend, U. of Wisconsin System Will Defend Race-Based Student-Aid Program against Complaint

Peter Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education, Apr. 13

The University of Wisconsin System is vowing to defend a race- and ethnicity-based student-aid program that is the target of a discrimination complaint filed this month with federal officials.

The complaint, submitted on April 1 to the Chicago branch of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, alleges that the university system is violating a federal civil-rights law by operating a program that provides financial aid to certain minority undergraduates to help keep them in college.

In an interview on Tuesday, a spokesman for the university system, Douglas Bradley, said officials there have no plans to change the program’s eligibility requirements because they believe it is on sound legal ground, having been established under a state law enacted in 1985. “We think we are following the law, and we are going to continue to follow the law until somebody changes it,” Mr. Bradley said.

Mr. Bradley described the lawmakers who had created the program as “forward-thinking and progressive,” and said the system plans to defend it as “in the best interests of the students in our state.”

The state law establishing the Ben R. Lawton Minority Undergraduate Grant Program limits eligibility to students who are black, Hispanic, or American Indian, or whose families came to the United States as refugees from Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam. The program provides grants to students who have completed their freshman year, with the intent of helping to ensure that they will have the money needed to complete their college educations. Last year, the program provided 2,715 students with annual awards that ranged up to $3,000 each and averaged about $1,400.

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The University of Wisconsin System appears to be going against the grain in its defense of a race-exclusive program. Elsewhere around the nation, colleges have been quietly opening up minority programs to students of all races in response to threats of legal action.

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