updated 11/11/2005 8:09:35 PM ET 2005-11-12T01:09:35

Federal prosecutors are threatening to sue Southern Illinois University over three small graduate school scholarship programs aimed at women and minorities, saying they are discriminatory.

SIU “has engaged in a pattern or practice of intentional discrimination against whites, non-preferred minorities and males,” the Justice Department said in a letter. A copy of the letter was obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The graduate scholarships, or fellowships, violate Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the department said. The letter demands SIU discontinue the fellowship programs or its civil rights division will sue the university by Nov. 18.

Chancellor Walter Wendler denied the fellowships are discriminatory and said he supports the programs. He said the university sent a letter to federal officials this week asking for a meeting.

Aimed at boosting minority enrollment
The programs, dubbed the Proactive Recruitment and Multicultural Professionals for Tomorrow fellowships and the Bridge to the Doctorate fellowships, are aimed at increasing enrollment of minorities in graduate programs where they are underrepresented. The Proactive program, begun in 2000, has aided 78 students, while the Bridge program, begun last year, has aided 24 students.

A third program, the Graduate Dean’s fellowships, are for women and minorities who have overcome adverse social, cultural or economic conditions. It was started in 2000 and has aided 27 students.

“I don’t think that discriminates against whites, but that’s what we need to talk to (federal officials) about,” said Wendler, adding that the school has “lots of other fellowship programs open to everyone.”

Just under 8 percent of SIU’s 5,500 graduate students are black or Hispanic. University spokeswoman Sue Davis said Friday that the programs have helped improve the school’s diversity and are similar to those at other schools nationwide.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.

University of Michigan under fire in 2003
In June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a general affirmative action policy at the University of Michigan law school but struck down the university’s undergraduate formula as too rigid because it awarded admission points based on race.

One expert said the Justice Department’s argument could be bolstered by the ruling.

“The court said you can’t categorize people purely by race,” said Mark Cordes, a law professor at Northern Illinois University. “The same thing would apply to a fellowship. At that point, you aren’t treating people as individuals.”

The Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank, spent months talking to SIU about changing the fellowships. Eventually, it protested to the Justice Department.

“There’s no question in my mind that what Southern Illinois is doing is illegal,” the center’s general counsel, Roger Clegg, said Friday. “It’s actually, I think, long overdue for the government to make it clear to universities that they cannot engage in illegal discrimination.”

But Sen. Barack Obama said the move could be an attempt by the Bush administration to divert attention away from the president’s low approval rating.

“It strikes me as a completely unnecessary and divisive move and one that I think may be pretty cynical in its motive,” the Illinois Democrat said Thursday.

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