Tea Party-Backed Senate Candidate Once Tried to End Scholarships for Minority Students

After Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison announced her retirement after she was declared a top target of Tea Party activists, the race for the Republican nomination became even more crowded and contentious. Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams immediately became a Tea Party sensation and last week resigned from the Railroad Commission in order to be a full-time candidate.

The American Spectator today features a glowing profile of Williams, saying that “something about him says ‘Don’t mess with Texas.’”

Williams even won the endorsement of Tea Party leader Sen. Jim DeMint, who’s Senate Conservatives Fund lifted a number of far-right candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell to victory in GOP primary contests.

But Williams first garnered the support of the Party’s far-right when he unsuccessfully tried to block scholarships for minority students when he worked at the Department of Education under President George H. W. Bush. The New York Times reported in 1990 that Williams caused uproar when he tried to prohibit “colleges and universities that receive Federal funds from offering scholarships designated for minority students.”

Michael L. Williams, the Education Department’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, said yesterday that “race-exclusive” scholarships, or those based on ethnic origin, were discriminatory and therefore illegal.

College administrators and scholarship fund directors reacted with alarm, saying the decision could reverse decades of efforts to increase the enrollment of members of racial and ethnic minorities who have been historically underrepresented in colleges.

“We were shocked by this decision,” said Richard F. Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents 815 institutions. “We have been making enormous efforts to increase the numbers of minority students in our colleges and universities, and this has necessarily required a great deal of financial aid.”

Neither Rosser nor anyone else contacted yesterday could say how many institutions, or what percentage of total financial aid to minority students, might be affected by the new enforcement policy. But the practice of setting aside money to attract qualified minority students and make college more affordable for them has been widespread for at least 20 years.

Ultimately, then-Secretary Lamar Alexander (now a Republican Senator from Tennessee) stopped Williams from implementing his policy, including his attempt to block the Fiesta Bowl from setting “aside $100,000 for a fund for minority scholarships.” As Williams happily notes in his campaign’s biography, he succeeded Clarence Thomas in his position at the Education Department.

In a Republican primary in Texas where each candidate has to demonstrate their right-wing credentials, Williams may try to use this case to his advantage.