Education Secretary William J. Bennett yesterday declared higher education systems in four southern states in full compliance with civil rights laws, while six other states, including Virginia, were ordered to take steps to desegregate their colleges and universities further.
The announcement signaled a new phase in a nearly two-decade-old effort to force southern states to remove the vestiges of formerly segregated college systems. It also prompted the anger of civil rights advocates, who argued that none of the states has met the commitments set out in desegregation plans.
The ruling means that, while civil rights laws must be met, no further desegregation efforts will be required of Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia. Additional action -- including enhancement of black colleges and improvements in minority recruiting -- was ordered in Virginia, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Oklahoma.
Bennett, announcing the department's long-awaited ruling, struck an upbeat note. "All of the 10 states have made significant and substantial progress in desegregating their systems of public higher education," he said. "Each has done all or most of what it committed to do under its plan. . . . "
But civil rights groups contended that disparities between white and black college-enrollment rates in several of the states have worsened in recent years and that the ruling will remove incentives for states to improve. They predicted that the remaining six states also will be released from federal scrutiny before the end of the Reagan administration.
"Higher education in the South remains racially segregated," said Mary Frances Berry, a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. The finding, she said, "compounds the problem. . . . There isn't even the hope of any kind of pressure" on state governments or institutions.
Civil rights groups and educators have carefully watched the 10 states' desegregation efforts, both as an indication of the administration's commitment to civil rights enforcement and as a reflection of the difficulty of desegregating higher education.
The desegregation plans stem from a 1970 lawsuit filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund charging that the federal government was failing to uphold civil rights laws by providing funds to states operating segregated colleges and universities.
That suit, which became a massive case affecting hundreds of institutions and thousands of students, was dismissed in December by U.S. District Court Judge John H. Pratt, who said the current plaintiffs did not have legal standing. The Legal Defense and Educational Fund has appealed Pratt's decision.
In the years that the landmark lawsuit was pending, the states were under plans that called for increasing black enrollment at predominantly white institutions and drawing white students to traditionally black institutions. The plans also were designed to recruit more black faculty and administrators to white institutions and improve programs and facilities at black campuses.
State officials, including those in the states found still in violation of the law, were relieved by the findings.
"We're pleased that the Office of Civil Rights, with few exceptions, has concluded that the Virginia system of higher education is in compliance," state Education Secretary Donald Finley said. "Our actions are going to continue. . . . We fulfilled our commitments, but we're still not satisfied."
Under the finding, Virginia must take several steps, including: develop recruitment brochures designed to attract black students; open a minority affairs center at Longwood College in Farmville; increase faculty salaries at Virginia State University; improve the institution's nursing, business and engineering programs and meet accreditation requirements for several programs at VSU and Norfolk State University.
Finley said many of these steps had been taken and the remainder could be accomplished by the December deadline set by the Education Department.
In South Carolina, Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. released a statement saying he was "delighted" that his state was found in compliance.
"The letter which I received this morning confirms that South Carolina has made great progress in the field of civil rights at our institutions of higher education," he said.
The Legal Defense Fund said that the Education Department, by requiring only modest improvements in the six states, "effectively excused 10 southern states from their affirmative obligation" to end segregation.
"It's a clear, clear indication that they will find everyone in compliance before they leave office," said Elliott C. Lichtman, a private attorney who represents the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which pursued desegregation efforts in the southern states.
He called Bennett's finding "a blow to any serious civil rights enforcement."