Princeton cuts minority-only program

Princeton University will shut down a minorities-only enrichment program, fearing that its exclusionary policies are illegal.

The summer program brings 30 black and Hispanic university students to the Princeton campus for seven weeks of non-credit courses at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, a graduate school. Its goal is to encourage more minorities to apply to that school or others like it.

But Princeton has decided the 17-year-old program would be considered discriminatory under recent court decisions.

“We became concerned that in the current legal climate, … was very likely that a program that was race-exclusive and restrictive by race would be challenged in the courts, and almost certainly we would not be able to defend it,” said Robert Durkee, Princeton’s vice president for public affairs.

Although acceptance into the program isn’t nearly as high-stakes as entry into a selective college or graduate school, Princeton’s decision sends another signal that racial preferences in higher education are in retreat.

Princeton’s move comes weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court considers racial preferences in admissions for the first time since 1978. The plaintiffs – white students who were rejected from the undergraduate program or law school of the University of Michigan – are asking the court to declare all racial preferences unconstitutional.

Already lower court rulings and voter referendums have forced schools in some states to abandon all consideration of race in admissions.

One supporter of affirmative action said Princeton acted prematurely.

“If it’s not being challenged, I wouldn’t change it,” said Angelo Ancheta, the legal director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project. He said Princeton should at least have waited until the Supreme Court hands down its ruling.

Ancheta noted, however, that there are few programs that are so exclusively limited to minorities. Most affirmative-action programs favor minorities, but are open to disadvantaged white students.

This summer’s crop of students has already been selected, so the university decided to hold one more session. After that, Durkee said, the university will either change the program’s admission criteria or take a completely different approach to encouraging minority applicants, such as traveling seminars by the graduate school’s professors and students.

Private groups, including the Ford Foundation, originally funded the program. Five years ago, however, the foundation decided the program was on shaky legal ground and withdrew its financial support, Durkee said. The university then paid for the program.

Princeton administrators had lately come to share the same doubts, especially after learning that another university, which hosts a program with similar restrictions, has been successfully challenged in court. Durkee would not identify the school.

Also, a group opposed to affirmative action recently contacted Princeton about the Woodrow Wilson program.

“We knew it was only a matter of time before there was a formal challenge,” Durkee said.