On a campus often associated with conservative causes, Pepperdine University undergrad Paris Dennard fits right in.
Dennard, a 21-year-old from Phoenix, is a former state chairman of the Arizona Teenage Republicans. He also was the youngest speaker showcased at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, where he had a chance to chat with now-President Bush.
But Dennard, and Pepperdine itself, now find themselves at odds with some of their conservative brethren.
Dennard, who is black, is one of 58 Pepperdine students receiving as much as $1,000 annually from a small scholarship program for minority students -- a program branded as illegal by anti-affirmative action activists because it is not open to all races and ethnicities.
Last month, two activist groups lodged complaints about the scholarship -- the Richard Eamer Scholars Program -- with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. The groups -- including a Sacramento-based organization founded by University of California Regent Ward Connerly -- have formally targeted a half dozen schools around the country, and sent warning letters to as many as 100 institutions.
In California, two other schools -- the California Institute of Technology and Stanford -- have received letters. Each, in turn, modified their practices in a recruiting or fellowship program. But Pepperdine, which received a warning letter but refused to change the Eamer scholarship, was the only California school to draw a formal complaint.
In their two-paragraph letter to the Department of Education, the anti-affirmative action groups contended that the Pepperdine program violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it is "racially exclusive." The complaint asked federal officials to tell the university that the program -- which has included retreats, counseling sessions and special receptions, along with scholarship money -- must be opened to people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds or the school will lose its federal funding.
Dennard respectfully disagrees.
"There are people who are on the right, and there are people on the extreme right," said Dennard, a fourth-year student working on a double major in political science and public relations. "And this is a part of political correctness on the extreme right to take race totally out of anything" related to education or government.
W. David Baird, dean of Pepperdine's undergraduate college, sees irony in the criticism from anti-affirmative action activists. The critics, he said, are "holding us up as not doing the right thing. It's almost like they don't know what Pepperdine is all about."
He noted that the university often brings in conservative political figures as guest speakers, and seven years ago offered the deanships of both its law and public policy schools to Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel who recommended impeachment of Bill Clinton.
But Pepperdine's mission as a Christian institution, affiliated with the Churches of Christ, actually makes it "concerned about ethnic diversity, not necessarily because it's politically correct, but because it's the right thing to do. We're called to it as a consequence of our Christian commitment," Baird said.
As a result, he said, Pepperdine won't back down on its Eamer program -- unless federal officials demand it.
The groups attacking the scholarship are the Sacramento-based American Civil Rights Institute, which was started by Connerly, and the Center for Equal Opportunity of Sterling, Va. The latter group is headed by Linda Chavez, a civil rights commissioner in the Reagan administration. She was nominated to be Labor secretary under George W. Bush, only to withdraw after it was revealed that she allowed an illegal immigrant to live in her house.
It's true that the Eamer scholarship provides only a small amount of aid to students, said Edward Blum, director of legal affairs for the American Civil Rights Institute and a senior fellow with the Center for Equal Opportunity. Pepperdine undergraduates receive as much $1,000 a year from the fund, and the overall payout of $47,219 this year represents less than 0.2% of the $30.4 million in scholarship funds the university provides to undergraduates.
Still, Blum said, "Let's put the shoe on the other foot. Could Pepperdine offer a scholarship and other academic enrichment resources only to white students, and make the argument that, 'Well, we only do that with a very small handful of white students?'.... It would be inconceivable for them to pursue policies like that."
Blum added that -- given the school's reputation "for being a conservative university" -- he was "surprised that Pepperdine has been so recalcitrant in not making this scholarship fairer for the students who attend the school who are not an underrepresented minority."
The anti-affirmative action activists have stepped up their efforts since last summer, when the U.S Supreme Court decided two affirmative action cases involving the University of Michigan.
Although the rulings were widely seen as at least a narrow victory for affirmative action, the court rejected quotas or separate admissions procedures for any racial or ethnic groups.
Soon after the Supreme Court rulings, the anti-affirmative action groups sent their letters to Stanford and Caltech raising questions about various outreach programs. Stanford responded in September by agreeing to modify one of the disputed initiatives, a fellowship for minorities participating in a nine-day, mid-career program for professionals in the publishing industry.
The organizers of the fellowship still say they "especially welcome applications from African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans and others whose backgrounds or experience would provide additional dimensions to the educational environment and the quality of intellectual discussion."
But Debra L. Zumwalt, Stanford's general counsel, said the two fellows chosen each year no longer will necessarily be minorities.
Zumwalt said the fellowship was changed because "our policy has been for a number of years not to have any programs that are race-exclusive."
Caltech, likewise, said it recently opened to all races and ethnic groups GradPreview@Caltech, a three-day campus visit program launched three years ago to recruit minority graduate students. Even now, "one of its main objectives is to increase diversity at the graduate level, but we invite applications from a variety of students. Anybody can apply," said Erica O'Neal, Caltech's assistant vice president for student affairs.
This year's program, which was offered last weekend, had four whites and four Asians or Pacific Islanders among the 39 participants.
Even before the Supreme Court decisions, the activist groups scored some victories.
A year ago, a federal investigation sparked by a complaint filed by activists prodded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to admit applicants of all races and ethnicities into two summer programs that previously were minority-only. One of the programs was aimed at encouraging minority high school students entering their senior year to enter the science and engineering fields, and the other was for incoming minority freshmen at MIT, to help them prepare for college studies.
Princeton University, another early target of the anti-affirmative action activists, has put its summer institute for minority college students interested in careers in public and international affairs students on hold while it decides how to respond to a similar complaint.
In the Pepperdine dispute, neither side appears ready to budge.
Roger Clegg, general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, said programs that exclude races or ethnic groups "are bad policy. They're bad for everyone. They are unfair for the students who are excluded, and they stigmatize and demean the students who are given the exclusive opportunity to participate in them."
Baird, Pepperdine's undergraduate dean, countered that the university wants "to be part of the solution to a racial and ethnic problem we have in the United States, and we want to do that by getting people here and giving them an opportunity to study at Pepperdine University."
Dennard, for his part, said he opposes affirmative action programs that rely on racial quotas or provide a major edge in admissions to students simply because of their racial or ethnic background.
Still, Dennard, a veteran of student government at Pepperdine, believes there's room for programs specifically aimed at minority students.
Dennard said he wasn't worried that the Eamer scholarships quickly would be dismantled. Or, at least, he is convinced that Pepperdine won't give up without putting up a good fight.
"It's that spirit of Christ that's within Pepperdine," he said. "It's that righteous indignation that comes out of that, that says, 'Hold on!' "