President Bush’s administration has threatened to sue Southern Illinois University, alleging its fellowship programs for minority and female students violate federal civil rights laws by discriminating against whites, men and others.
In a move Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said “just doesn’t make sense,” the U.S. Justice Department charged that three SIU programs that aim to increase minority enrollment in graduate school exclude whites, other minorities and males, in violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act.
“The University has engaged in a pattern or practice of intentional discrimination against whites, non-preferred minorities and males,” says a Justice Department letter sent to the university last week and obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
The letter demands the university cease the fellowship programs, or the department’s civil rights division will sue SIU by Nov. 18.
The Justice Department sent a letter to SIU in August asking for information on eight fellowship or internship programs at SIU and information about faculty hiring.
The Carbondale school earlier received a request from the Center for Equal Opportunity, an anti-affirmative action group that has been challenging similar programs around the country and that has complained to the feds about some of SIU’s programs.
“I don’t think there’s any way that Southern Illinois can defend these programs legally, and I don’t understand why they’d want to run a program that refuses to consider some individuals on the basis of their skin color,” said Roger Clegg of the conservative think tank.
The Justice Department targeted three graduate programs: the Proactive Recruitment and Multicultural Professionals for Tomorrow fellowship, the Graduate Dean’s fellowship and the Bridge to the Doctorate fellowship.
The first two are funded by the university, while the Bridge program—which aims to increase the number of minorities in the sciences, math and engineering—is funded by another federal agency, the National Science Foundation.
Nearly 8 percent of SIU’s 5,500 graduate students are black or Hispanic.
‘Pretty cynical in its motive’
A spokesman for the Justice Department’s civil rights division declined comment Thursday, but Illinois’ junior U.S. senator ridiculed the maneuver as a “cynical” bid to distract public attention from Bush’s sagging popularity.
“One of my concerns has been with all the problems the Bush administration is having, that they’ll start resorting to what they consider to be wedge issues as a way of helping themselves politically,” Obama said.
The U.S. Justice Department alleges that three graduate fellowships at Southern Illinois University violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Legal experts say a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action at the University of Michigan also applies.
In a 2003 decision, Grutter vs. Bollinger, the court said in a 5-4 ruling that race could be included as a factor in determining admissions, but not the sole factor. Every application needs to be considered on an individual basis, which would make excluding people solely based on race problematic, said Mark Cordes, a professor of law at Northern Illinois University.