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Bush claims victory in diversity

Gov. Jeb Bush credits his One Florida program for raising enrollment among minority students in Florida colleges.

Published September 3, 2003

Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday had a message for critics of his ban on racial preferences in university admissions.

Told you so.

Florida universities this year saw the biggest percentage increase in freshmen minority enrollment since Bush's One Florida plan took effect three years ago, new figures show.

It was a slight increase - less than 1 percentage point - but it was enough to allow Bush to call his approach a success.

"You said the world was near the end, Armageddon was about to occur," Bush told reporters. "African-American and Hispanic students would not be attending our universities because of this draconian measure. What we've proven is you don't have to use race as a factor."

The percentage of all incoming minority freshmen at the 11 public universities increased to 37.3 percent, half a percent from the year before.

More than half the increase was the result of a rise in enrollment at the state's two predominantly minority schools, Florida A&M University in Tallahassee and Florida International University in Miami. The percentage of minority freshmen enrollment dropped this year at four universities: Florida State University in Tallahassee, the University of West Florida in Pensacola, the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.

The University of Florida, which initially saw its portion of minority students drop under One Florida, has recovered its losses and has a slightly higher percentage of minority freshmen than it did before Bush's initiative. At the University of South Florida, the percentage of minority freshmen is at record 32.3 percent this year.

Bush and Education Commissioner Jim Horne proudly announced the minority enrollment figures at the Capitol in Tallahassee one week after classes began at most universities.

"It's an exciting day for all of us that have embraced diversity," Bush said. "One Florida is achieving its mission."

It was a remarkable contrast to the firestorm Bush ignited in 1999 when he set out to eliminate race as a factor in Florida university admissions. He promised to maintain diversity by launching outreach programs to high school students. But two black legislators protested with a sit-in at his office, and thousands marched on Tallahassee.

One of the protesters, former state lawmaker and now U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, said Tuesday he would have to review the numbers but said the policy is weak and would be rejected if challenged in court.

"We still stand very concerned with the program because it's untested constitutionally through the court system," he said.

In June, a split U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race can be a factor in university admissions but not the predominant one. The governor referred to that landmark ruling Tuesday, calling affirmative action "constitutionally suspect" and "morally wrong."

"It's easy to do it the old way. It's better to do it the new way," Bush said. "We've seen success that gives all Floridians a great sense of pride."

But One Florida did not entirely eliminate race as a factor. Researchers with Harvard's Civil Rights Project say Florida is not completely race-neutral, a point state and university officials acknowledge.

Florida universities aggressively pursue promising minority students to diversify the applicant pool. They aren't supposed to use race as a factor when final selections are made, though admissions officers often can decipher a student's race from information in admission applications.

Bush said Tuesday that he has proven his critics wrong because they had predicted minority enrollment would plummet.

The governor credited the rise in minority university freshmen to improvements made in high schools, including an increase in minority high school students taking advanced placement classes and college prep tests.

Bush used 1998 figures, making the gains seem more impressive. He touted a 1.7 percent increase in minority freshmen enrollment since 1998, though the percentage increased by just 0.7 percent since 1999, the last year of racial preferences.

The percentage of incoming black students decreased since 1999, but the number of Asians and Hispanics freshmen increased as did the overall minority numbers that include Asians and Native Americans.

Total minority enrollment increased from 32.8 percent in 1999 to 34.3 percent this year. Minority graduate enrollment rose from 22.95 percent in 1999 to 23.76 percent this year.

"The numbers really speak for themselves," Horne said. "And the best news is yet to come."

But UF, Florida's most prestigious school, suffered an embarrassing drop in minority enrollment after the program began. It has increased its numbers, and this year brought the percentage of black students back to where it was before One Florida.

"Indeed, there was a problem. Everyone in the state saw that," said UF President Charles Young. "We're continuing to see a rise across the board again."

State and university officials attribute the increase to aggressive minority recruitment, mentoring programs and partnerships with predominantly black or Hispanic high schools around the state.

USF President Judy Genshaft said the increase in black and Hispanic students reflects the local metropolitan population.

"Diversity is very important to us," she said. "We're the first choice for many top quality minority students."

Before One Florida, the state's most selective universities used race as a factor, though it varied from school to school.

This year, more students than ever chose not to identify themselves as any particular race.

- Times staff writer Matthew Waite and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

[Last modified September 3, 2003, 01:46:35]

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