Prospective students eligible for the Distinguished African American, African-American Scholar, and African-American Enrichment scholarships at the University of Memphis may be out of luck next school year.
The scholarships, enacted as part of a settlement agreement dating back to the 1968 Rita Sanders Geier lawsuit, will cease to exist next fall.
Geier, then a professor at predominantly-black Tennessee State University, filed a claim in an attempt to end the effective segregation of Tennessee's public colleges and universities. The state of Tennessee then established a series of programs, including several scholarships, designed for more effective long-term racial integration. The "other race" scholarships, for instance, would provide an incentive for minority students to voluntarily integrate schools without resorting to racial-quota legislation.
But more recently, two 2003 U.S. Supreme Court cases out of Michigan -- Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger -- held that "other race" scholarships such as the ones stipulated by Geier are illegal.
"Based on the legal precedents set by the Michigan cases, we would be under scrutiny if we continued to offer 'other race' scholarships," says Michelle Banks, Equal Employment and Affirmative Action officer for the U of M.
Exactly what effect the cancellation of these scholarships will have, however, is unclear.
"There is one group of people telling us that we're going to get the money, and there's another group of people telling us that we're not," Banks says. "Before, the recipients of African-American scholarships received the funds from their scholarships, thereby not competing for university funds. But now, everyone will be competing for the same money."
Other school administrators, however, say that the changes will have "little to no impact" on how they award scholarships.
Rhodes College political science professor Marcus Pohlmann says that simply rerouting the existing money into need-based aid could maintain the spirit of the Geier scholarships. "It still may serve many of the same students and just proxy for race as such moves have done elsewhere," he explains.
Still, eliminating the scholarships will probably carry some consequences.
"This might deter some African-American students from coming," says University of Memphis junior William Terrell, who cited his Distinguished African-American Scholarship as the main reason he attended the U of M.
Pohlmann agrees. "Will it cost the U of M some of its better black students who are better off and have choices of schools? It may."
"But," he adds, "other schools are going this same route. It's not that unusual."
All 193 students currently receiving funding from the scholarships, however, will continue to do so as long as they abide by the guidelines of their individual programs.