Federal prosecutors are threatening to sue Southern Illinois University over three scholarship programs aimed at women and minorities, calling them discriminatory.

SIU "has engaged in a pattern or practice of intentional discrimination against whites, non-preferred minorities and males," the Justice Department said in a letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The graduate scholarships, or fellowships, violate Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the department said. The letter said Justice's civil rights division will sue SIU if it does not discontinue the programs by next Friday.

Chancellor Walter Wendler said he supports the programs. He said the university sent a letter to federal officials asking for a meeting.

The Proactive Recruitment of Multicultural Professionals for Tomorrow fellowships and the Bridge to the Doctorate fellowships are aimed at increasing enrollment of minorities in graduate programs where they are underrepresented. The Proactive program, begun in 2000, has aided 78 students, while the Bridge program, begun last year, has aided 24 students.

A third program, the Graduate Dean's fellowships, are for women and minorities who have overcome adverse social, cultural or economic conditions. It was started in 2000 and has aided 27 students.

Wendler said SIU has "lots of other fellowship programs open to everyone."

Less than 8 percent of SIU's 5,500 graduate students are black or Hispanic. University spokeswoman Sue Davis said Friday that the programs have helped improve the school's diversity and are similar to those at other schools nationwide.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.

In June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a general affirmative action policy at the University of Michigan law school but struck down the university's undergraduate formula as too rigid because it awarded admission points based on race.