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NIH Settles in Affirmative Action Suit

Opponents of affirmative action are claiming a legal victory against a federal effort to attract more minority students into biomedicine and health careers. On 11 December, lawyers for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Individual Rights (CIR) agreed to settle out-of-court, including $25,000 in legal fees, on behalf of a white teenage Texas girl excluded from a summer science camp for groups traditionally underrepresented in science. Two of the program's federal sponsors--the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)--have agreed to eliminate race from their selection criteria.

The next day the CIR lent its support to a suit filed by a white male graduate student at Clemson University in South Carolina against the National Science Foundation (NSF). The new case involves a minorities-only component of NSF's prestigious graduate research fellowships program. "It's difficult to win a broad-based injunction against such programs so we have to attack on a case-by-case basis," says Michael Rosman of the CIR, which won a similar case in 1996 against NSF. "We're trying to convince the government that those programs will be a target if they persist in implementing them," says Rosman.

The plaintiff in the NIH-USDA case, a 17-year-old high school senior whose identity has been kept secret because of her age, sued in February 1997 after being told 2 years earlier that she was not eligible for a summer program for minority students at Texas A&M University. The settlement does permit the two agencies to run programs tailored to "socially, economically, or educationally" disadvantaged students. But USDA no longer runs such a program, and in October, NIH announced it would not accept new applicants from institutions for the summer program, pending a decision on how to restructure it.

The plaintiff in the new suit against NSF, filed on 12 December, is Travis Kidd, a graduate student in mathematics from Anderson, South Carolina. Kidd says he was denied the opportunity to apply for one of approximately 400 slots in the fellowship program that are reserved for members of groups traditionally underrepresented in science and engineering--Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders. Kidd is being represented by the Washington, D.C. law firm of Brown and Frye, which took the case on a referral from CIR.