Surge of minorities in new law schools
By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
ORLANDO -- With attorneys for parents, it wasn't all that surprising that G. Everett Williams wanted to go to law school after graduating from Florida A&M University a year ago.
The only question was where.
Williams, 23, planned to apply to the two public law schools in Florida, the University of Florida and Florida State University, and maybe a couple of the small, private schools around the state.
But that changed when his alma mater reopened its law school this fall after 34 years.
"Initially, I thought about not going there," said Williams, of Jacksonville. "But once I got my information packet, when I looked at it, it touched a nerve."
About 200 students began classes last week at the state's two newest public law schools, FAMU and Florida International University. Both just opened their doors for the fall semester. FAMU considered Tampa but chose downtown Orlando instead. FIU's law school is on its Miami campus.
FAMU and FIU are two of a handful of public law schools in the United States to open in the last decade. It's not something that happens every day.
"There's something special about being in the inaugural class," said Brian Abramson, a 29-year-old FIU law student from Miami. "It sets traditions. It sets standards."
Lawmakers in Florida, which has two other public law schools and six private ones, approved opening the schools two years ago to lure more black and Hispanic students into the legal profession.
At first glance, that appears to be happening. The schools managed to recruit students this year without taking away students from other Florida law schools.
More than half of the law students at FAMU and FIU are minorities. FAMU is the state's historically black institution, while FIU has the highest enrollment of Hispanic students among the 11 state universities.
"We do have a higher number of African-Americans and Hispanics than most law schools," FAMU law dean Percy Luney said. "It doesn't have to be 80 percent to be high."
Opponents argue that the schools have merely reshuffled an inadequate pool of black and Hispanic applicants, adding few new students to the state's total because most would have gone to school somewhere else. They contend that few qualified minorities are denied a shot at a legal education in Florida, and that adding more classrooms doesn't assure that minority students will come to fill them.
"There is no shortage of law schools in Florida," said Steve Uhlfelder, a Tallahassee lawyer who spoke against the proposal during the 2000 legislative debate and is now a member of the FSU Board of Trustees. "You can build all the law schools you want -- this doesn't solve the problem."
Administrators at the state's eight other law schools, including Stetson College of Law in Gulfport, said the number of minority students this fall did not drop significantly as some predicted.
"It fills a niche," UF law dean Jon Mills said. "There are people who want a chance at a legal career they couldn't get before."
Most schools kept the same percentage of minorities, 20 percent or more. Only a private school not far from FIU, the University of Miami, saw a reduction, from about 35 percent to 28 percent.
"I never thought the schools would curl up and die," said Joseph Harbaugh, law dean at Novasoutheastern University in Fort Lauderdale.
The real problem this year, administrators say, was the elimination of two popular minority scholarships that benefitted students at public and private schools. The state dropped them because of expectations that FAMU and FIU would help recruit more minority students to Florida schools.
"That was the big loss for us," FSU law school dean Don Weidner said.
Administrators at some other law schools concluded it might have been more productive, and certainly cheaper, to funnel more money into scholarships and prelaw programs.
The other schools are no longer able to factor race into admissions because of Gov. Jeb Bush's One Florida initiative, the program that eliminates race-based policies in university admissions and state contracting.
In education, the goal was to increase minority participation in precollege testing, advanced classes in high school and merit-based scholarships for colleges.
One Florida forced universities to step up recruiting efforts. They hired more staff, visited more colleges and universities and attended more recruitment fairs.
Because the number of students applying to law schools is up across the nation, it's difficult to determine what effect the new schools will have. The economy's downturn has prompted students to give graduate school a shot instead of facing a bleak job market.
Nationwide, applications have soared 20 percent this year. In Florida, most schools report even higher numbers. For example, UF, the state's largest public university, saw an increase of 40 percent.
That means it's even harder to get into law school. At established schools, UF and FSU, 13 times as many students applied as were enrolled. At FAMU and FIU, those numbers were much lower. For example, FAMU enrolled a third of those who applied and has 90 full- and part-time students. FIU has 117 full- and part-time students. "Nobody is hurting this year," FIU law dean Leonard Strickman said. "We'll see what happens in future years."
The Board of Regents, the defunct group that oversaw public universities, opposed the new schools. But a coalition of black and Hispanic lawmakers managed to shepherd a bill through the Legislature in 2000 by arguing that the state needs more minority lawyers.
That's because blacks and Hispanics make up 30 percent of the state's population, but only 8 percent of Florida lawyers. Both FAMU and FIU want eventually to offer specialized programs of particular interest to their students, such as civil rights or international relations.
Bush, who initially opposed the law schools proposal, later supported it because he said the new schools would embody his One Florida initiative.
In other states that have eliminated racial preferences in recent years, the biggest declines in minority enrollment have occurred in their top professional schools, especially medical and law colleges.
Supporters of both FAMU and FIU have campaigned for years for law schools, often fighting against one another. FAMU had its own law school in Tallahassee until 1968, when lawmakers shut it down just as a law school opened across town at the then-predominantly white FSU.
"To see it come back is very special," said Luney, the law dean.
FIU is housing its law school in an existing building on campus. FAMU is renting an old, 10-story bank building in the heart of downtown Orlando that is decorated in school colors, green and orange. But the building doesn't have a classroom that will hold more than 35 people so the school held orientation at the nearby University of Central Florida downtown campus.
"It's daunting," said Grace Mills, the FAMU law library director who has to find room for $2-million worth of books and microfiche. "We're doing everything from the ground up."
Both schools plan to spend millions of dollars to construct buildings in the coming years.
Besides needing permanent homes, both schools still need American Bar Association accreditation, which comes after a long, arduous process that won't begin until next year.
Administrators at FAMU and FIU tout the high number of applications they received this year without accreditation of proof of their success. There are several reasons for that.
They offer part-time, night programs while the state's other more traditional public schools don't. They cost a quarter the price of private schools, some of which have tuition topping $24,000 a year. And they are located in urban areas where plenty of minorities live and work.
About 1.3-million Hispanics live in Dade and Broward counties within commuting distance of FIU and three private law schools. About 181,000 black residents live in the Orlando area, which has both FAMU and Barry University law school.
For those reasons, some people were surprised that FAMU and FIU didn't boast even more minority students.
"I still question the schools," said state Rep. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who tried to steer money away from the new law schools in the Legislature. "But at this point, we've spent money. The decision has been made."
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