Justice Department Threatens Suit over Southern Illinois University's Minority Fellowships

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Federal prosecutors are threatening to sue Southern Illinois University over three 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 contends. The letter demands SIU discontinue the fellowship programs or face a lawsuit from the Justice Department's civil rights division.

One U.S. senator from Illinois says the move may be more about boosting President Bush's sagging approval ratings than about discrimination.

"It strikes me as a completely unnecessary and divisive move and one that I think may be pretty cynical in its motive," Democratic Sen. Barack Obama says.

Bush's popularity has been eroding steadily in the face of continued casualties in Iraq, the highly contentious U.S. Supreme Court nominations and the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The president's approval rating is now at 37 percent in the latest AP-Ipsos poll, the lowest in his presidency.

SIU Chancellor Walter V. Wendler denied the fellowships are discriminatory and says he supports the programs. He says the university recently sent a letter to federal officials asking for a meeting.

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. …


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