How Columbia's 'Illegal' White-Only Scholarship Disappeared

An arcane court case has revealed that an Ivy League university awarded a racist fellowship for 77 years. As it turns out, the school may have known about the "Caucasian" clause all along — even though its recipients did not. Columbia says it's trying to get back the money for "a diversity of students," but what happened in between? And why are we just learning about this now?

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A few weeks ago, JPMorgan Chase filed a curious affidavit with the Supreme Court of Manhattan, requesting that seven clauses outlining a graduate-student fund it oversees at Columbia University be struck down, because the scholarship doesn't exist anymore. While most of the clauses in question are dry and very procedural, one in particular stuck out: a requirement that the scholarship, currently valued at $840,000, "shall only be awarded to persons of the Caucasian race." On Tuesday the New York Daily News reported that a Columbia official had joined JPMorgan's case, thus suddenly revealing that an Ivy League university had awarded a racist scholarship for 77 years.

As it turns out, the school may have known about the race restriction all along — even though its recipients did not, including an awardee in the last year the Lydia C. Roberts Graduate Fellowship was handed out (1997) who told The Atlantic Wire that the white-only clause "is news to me." Now that Columbia says it's trying to get back the money for "a diversity of students" — a university official admits that "the illegal and anachronistic racial" clause was one reason they can't award it right now — several questions remain: Did Columbia actually heed the "Caucasian" clause? If not, why did they stop awarding the money? And why is this only coming up in 2013?

The timeline of events is certainly fuzzy. After all, students were still receiving the scholarship as late up until 16 years ago — 20 years after Columbia instated anti-discrimination policies in the 1970s. And those students appear to have met the scholarships' other, non-racial restrictions, like being born in Iowa or having attended college there. But Columbia officials insist that the university willfully overlooked the race clause for years when awarding the fellowship, established in 1920 by Midwestern hotelier Lydia C. Chamberlain.

"It has long been the University's practice to disregard donor restrictions that violate either the law or our policies," Columbia spokesman Robert Hornsby told The Atlantic Wire, adding that "with the passage of so many years, it is impossible to know exactly when the University stopped adhering to the race-related terms of the gift." In that case, it's not clear why JPMorgan, which administers the fund, is bothering with a hundred-page affidavit to remove the race clause if Columbia is already entitled to disregard it. The court case doesn't explain whether this is a face-saving operation or a legal requirement to reinstate the fellowship. And Columbia, despite multiple requests, would not explain when or if it had ever invoked the race clause or awarded the scholarship funds to a non-white grad student — or if it had ever told applicants or recipients whether it was aware of the restriction it was ignoring. "With the passage of so many years, it is impossible to know exactly when the University stopped adhering to the race-related terms of the gift," Hornsby said.

Nor is it not evident that Columbia actually disregarded the race clause. The school declined to supply a list of past recipients, so it's difficult to determine who received it. The school appears to have enforced the Iowa-related restrictions, though. The curriculum vitae of one 1997 beneficiary, Timothy Polashek, who is white, describes the scholarship as an "award for [the] top graduate student at Columbia University with a B.A. from an Iowa college." When we asked him about the race clause, Polashek, now a professor of music at Transylvania university in Kentucky, responded: "Wow, that is news to me. I remember it having to do with being associated with Iowa, however." (Another white beneficiary, who received the award in 1976, told the Daily News that he "didn't even know there were requirements of race.")

When pressed to explain why Columbia continued awarding the scholarship until the late 1990s, Columbia's Hornsby wrote the following in an email, suggesting that the school and the bank are attempting to tweak the language so it can bring the scholarship back:

There is no more important priority for higher education than finding ways to make quality education affordable. The University has been unable to award this fellowship for many years due to the numerous restrictions (even beyond the illegal and anachronistic racial one). Trustee JPMorgan Chase is following the legally required process of asking the court to help us free up these funds so it can benefit a diversity of students.

The renewal of the scholarship — and the revelation of its disregarded demand — arrives at a tense time for Columbia. The university's Morningside Heights campus has recently seen a string of race-related incidents, including an alleged hate crime involving a varsity football player and a number of incendiary Twitter accounts maintained by the player's teammates.

The affidavit may be viewed below::

Here is the race clause:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.