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Educators and civil rights leaders describe as callous and "bizarre" an Education Department official's attempt to prohibit minority scholarships by colleges and universities that receive federal funds.

Assistant Secretary Michael L. Williams, head of the department's Office of Civil Rights, said Wednesday that race-specific scholarships offered by the colleges and universities are illegal. But he acknowledged to reporters he had not discussed the issue with anyone at the White House."We believe this advisory is incorrect and misguided, and may be politically motivated," said Robert Atwell, president of the American Council on Education, an organization of colleges and universities.

However, the conservative Washington Legal Foundation, which claimed credit for encouraging the action, applauded Williams for halting "reverse discrimination scholarships."

"To say we are appalled is to understate our position," said NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks. "We are, in fact, incensed at the insensitivity, callousness, and quite frankly, the illogic of such a ruling."

Richard Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said he would try to meet with department officials to discuss the apparent policy shift that could imperil an undetermined number of scholarship programs designed to benefit minorities.

"It seems to me ironic that the same agency of government that, on one hand, exerts considerable pressure on colleges and universities to be minority-conscious in their recruitment practices now would appear to be removing one of the tools to recruit minority students - targeted financial aid programs directed toward minority students," said John McDermott, vice president for planning and enrollment at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa.

A controversy arose last week when Williams warned officials of the Fiesta Bowl against their offer of $100,000 in minority scholarships to the universities of Louisville and Alabama if their football teams play in the game.

Fiesta Bowl officials made the offer after Arizona voters rejected a holiday honoring assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The vote prompted the National Football League to threaten to pull the 1993 Super Bowl from Phoenix, and the annual Fiesta Bowl faced a similar protest among university officials.

Williams said his office is working with Fiesta Bowl, Louisville and Alabama officials to devise an acceptable program.

But in a Dec. 4 letter to bowl officials, he wrote that "Title Six (of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) prohibits discrimination on the ground of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."

"The Title Six regulation includes several provisions that prohibit recipients of Education Department funding from denying, restricting, or providing different or segregated financial aid or other program benefits on the basis of race, color, or national origin," he wrote.

Atwell said, "This claim, if allowed to stand, apparently would reverse over a decade of legal precedent and advice received by institutions from that office that such scholarships, correctly administered, are allowed under law," he said.