Reposted from Science Magazine, 25 November 2005

Can a U.S. university participate in a federal program to increase the number of minority scientists without discriminating against the rest of the student population? That's the question facing Southern Illinois University (SIU) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) after the U.S. Department of Justice concluded this month that the university is violating the civil rights of Caucasian students by offering graduate fellowships to underrepresented minorities under an NSF program called "Bridges to the Doctorate."

The case is the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle over federal programs aimed at boosting the tiny percentage of Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans in the scientific workforce. Conservative groups such as the Virginia-based Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO), which flagged the SIU programs for the Justice Department, have pushed for the elimination of all racially exclusive programs at both the state and federal levels, and several universities have canceled such programs or changed their eligibility criteria ( Science, 21 February 2003, p. 1167). But proponents say they are necessary to accomplish the goal of greater participation in science by minorities.

In a 4 November letter, the Justice Department informed SIU officials that they have "engaged in a pattern or practice of intentional discrimination against whites, nonpreferred minorities, and males" by offering the Bridges program and two university-funded graduate fellowships that serve underrepresented minorities and women. The department said SIU could avoid being taken to federal court by canceling the programs and providing "make-whole relief " to the "victims." It's the first such letter by the department to a university.

Some 27 students participate in the SIU Bridges program, one of 18 sites around the country. The $17.8-million-a-year NSF program is an extension of the foundation's Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LS-AMP) that serves undergraduates majoring in science and engineering. The SIU case highlights what NSF spokesperson Curt Suplee calls "our two different legal mandates." Like every public agency, NSF swears it won't discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or national origin. Yet a 1980 law also gives it the authority to run programs to help minorities, women, and those with disabilities. "We are in compliance with both mandates," says Suplee.

And that's the rub. CEO's Roger Clegg says race cannot be used as the overriding criterion for participation in any campus program. But Representative Chaka Fattah (D-PA), a member of the spending panel that funds NSF and a vocal supporter of targeted programs, sees such programs as critical for achieving an adequate domestic scientific workforce. "The intervention of the Justice Department contradicts 40 years of federal efforts, by presidents of both parties, to improve access to higher education by disadvantaged groups," says Fattah.

SIU interim president Duane Stucky says the programs are part of the school's commitment to serving underrepresented students and that talks this week with the Justice Department are aimed at finding ways to preserve the programs.

Jeffrey Mervis is a senior correspondent for Science magazine.