updated 11/19/2005 11:03:00 PM ET 2005-11-20T04:03:00

A white female student at Southern Illinois University considers the school’s fellowships for women and minorities a noble bid to build diversity. A black female student calls such efforts discriminatory.

The Justice Department’s demand that the university end the fellowships or be sued is drawing mixed reaction on campus.

A letter sent by the department last week demanded that SIU halt three small graduate fellowship programs by Friday or be sued. The government alleges that the fellowships violate the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and result in “intentional discrimination against whites, non-preferred minorities and males.”

SIU officials will discuss the matter with Justice Department officials Monday, school spokeswoman Sue Davis said. The university has denied the fellowships are discriminatory and asked for another month to review their application history.

“If we found out that we can improve the programs, we’d be pleased to do that,” Chancellor Walter Wendler said this week.

Two of the fellowship programs are aimed at increasing minority enrollment in graduate programs in which minorities are underrepresented. The third is offered to women, including whites, and minorities “who have overcome social, cultural or economic conditions,” according to the university.

“I think the university knows what it’s doing,” said Stephanie Varju, 20, a white sophomore from Streator.

Debbie Owens, a black senior, said she agrees with the government, calling into question the seeming emphasis on race over such considerations as grade-point average, achievements, need and eligibility.

Still, “suing should be the absolute last resort,” said Owens, 27, of Marion. “Surely there’s room to compromise.”

In an editorial, the school’s student-run Daily Egyptian newspaper called the fellowships inseparable from the university’s mission and an important part of its quest for diversity. “It is a characteristic of our nation what we make education broadly available across the spectra of race, gender, cultural background and income,” the editorial said.

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