College and university spokesmen, educators and civil rights leaders across the country are angry about a new Education Department policy that would withhold funds from campuses that earmark financial aid for minority students.
Campus scholarship officers and minority spokesmen huddled with attorneys to interpret the scope of the department's reinterpretation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Some threatened a legal challenge.
Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, a union representing nearly 2 million teachers, called the department's ruling "appalling and one that will lead to a national tragedy."
"This is an unconscionable decision and once again casts serious doubt about the president's statements about reaching out," said Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, an umbrella organization of civil rights groups.
The White House, meanwhile, was studying the department's new policy, after being caught by surprise. A senior administration official said that the White House was deeply embarrassed by the substance of the decision, and by its announcement before White House officials were notified.
President Bush, seeking to avoid a damaging civil rights dispute, said Friday he has asked his staff "to get a quick readout" on the ruling. "We're looking at it right now," Bush said at a news conference when asked about the surprise decision.
Michael Williams, assistant education secretary for civil rights, said colleges would be in danger of losing their federal funding if they awarded scholarships on the basis of race. Williams said the ban did not apply to federal scholarship programs that Congress established specifically for minorities, privately administered ones or programs that consider race as one of several eligibility criteria.
He said he did not know how many students might be affected or the total amount of money involved. Several college officials said it amounted to millions of dollars worth of scholarships.
Daniel Steiner, general counsel for Harvard University, called the department's action "a step backward."
"The new interpretation is inconsistent with prior pronouncements by the department and at odds with other federal and university objectives, such as increasing the number of minority faculty members in universities," Steiner said.
Robert Atwell, president of the American Council on Education, has asked for an early meeting with acting Education Secretary Ted Sanders and Williams.
"We will not stop at that; we have been talking with members of Congress and we want the statement retracted," said Atwell, whose organization includes 1,800 colleges, universities and education organizations.
The new policy comes as colleges are making admissions and financial decisions for next year's class, and at a time when there are strong efforts to recruit more minority students.
"This is a crude and blatant attempt to seriously cripple, if not kill outright, the well intentioned efforts of a number of colleges and universities to provide educational opportunities for minority students," said Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.