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    FAMU law school: solution or symbol?

    Critics doubt the new school can fulfill its mission of significantly increasing the black lawyers in Florida.

    By BARRY KLEIN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 2000


    TALLAHASSEE -- The dinner celebrating the resurrection of Florida A&M University's long-defunct law school was still an hour away, but James Corbin already was savoring the sweet taste of vindication.

    "Finally, we will have a law school that can compete on an even footing," said Corbin, one of the many FAMU graduates at last month's gala still bitter about the state's decision to close the historically black school 35 years ago. "And we will compete. Make no mistake about that."

    What that means for Florida, however, is far from clear.

    Administrators at the state's eight law schools don't question the validity of FAMU's historical grievance, which had a lot to do with the Legislature's decision this year to create the school. But many are questioning whether the university can achieve its stated mission, which is to significantly increase the number of black lawyers in Florida.

    They contend that few qualified African-American students are being denied a shot at legal education in Florida. FAMU's law school, they say, will merely reshuffle an inadequate pool of black applicants, adding few to the state's total.

    "I think we're just talking about slicing the pie into smaller and smaller pieces," said W. Gary Vause, the dean at Stetson College of Law, a well-regarded private school in Gulfport.

    Several of the deans also wonder whether FAMU even can build a predominantly black law school in this era of "One Florida," when the slightest hint of racial preferences is sure to elicit lawsuits.

    They think the school could attract many white applicants, especially given its cheap tuition compared with its private competitors.

    "It is an interesting question," said Jon Mills, interim dean at the University of Florida College of Law.

    FAMU officials, who expect to open their school in two years, acknowledge they have many challenges to overcome. First they have to secure a site, which will happen Friday when the state Board of Regents formally selects Orlando. Then they have to hire a dean and begin the long struggle toward accreditation.

    Once those tasks are under control, they say, they can worry about recruiting.

    At the very least, said FAMU provost James Ammons, the school expects to attract many of its own graduates, dozens of whom go on to law school every year.

    "We think that will be a major market for us," he said.

    But so do the law schools at UF and Florida State University, not to mention the University of Michigan, Georgetown and even Harvard, all of which recruit FAMU graduates.

    "No one said it was going to be easy," said Corbin, the only African-American on the regents, which twice voted against the creation of a new law school at FAMU. "But nothing is ever easy for African-Americans. At least this time the state is trying to do what's right."

    A symbolic gesture

    FAMU was not the only beneficiary of the state's generosity this spring. Also scheduled to open in 2002 is a law school at Florida International University in Miami. Its primary mission, according to lawmakers, is to increase the number of Hispanic lawyers in Florida.

    Once both schools are at full strength, they are projected to cost taxpayers at least $20-million annually to operate.

    It was that price tag that led many experts, including the regents, to advise against the creation of the schools last year.

    They concluded it would be more productive, and certainly more cost-effective, to funnel additional money into scholarships and prelaw programs.

    "This is more about a symbolic gesture to make up for a past wrong than it is a solution to a problem," said Steven Uhlfelder, a regent and Tallahassee lawyer. "The real problem is with the pool. It's the same reason we don't have enough African-American engineers or doctors."

    The legal community has few doubts about FIU's ability to achieve its mission, largely because of the 1.3-million Hispanics in Dade and Broward counties that live within commuting distance of the new school.

    Wherever it lands, FAMU won't benefit from such geographic good fortune.

    The Orlando area has just 181,000 black residents. Hillsborough County has about 215,000.

    Ammons said those numbers aren't that important because FAMU intends to recruit everywhere, which is precisely what worries many of the deans.

    There are two public law schools in Florida, UF and FSU, and six private ones. The public school deans say they expect to lose some minority students to the new schools, though not a large number.

    The private school deans say they could get clobbered.

    The problem, they say, is the huge price advantage enjoyed by the new schools, where the tuition will be subsidized by state taxpayers.

    The University of Miami's law school, for example, charges about $23,000 annually in tuition and fees. Florida Coastal School of Law school, a recently accredited private institution in Jacksonville, charges $18,000.

    Both FAMU and FIU expect to charge in-state students about $5,000 a year.

    "We expect to benefit considerably from that," said FIU provost Mark Rosenberg. "It's critical to our ability to attract students."

    When they approved the new schools, state lawmakers lauded the price advantage. They said it would help Florida because it would allow more minority students to graduate with less debt.

    That would be a positive, say the private school deans, at least for the students.

    "But it also means the cost of educating them is being transferred from the private to the public sector," said Vause, the Stetson dean. "That shouldn't be ignored."

    Making the pitch

    For the past two years, Patrick Shannon, an assistant dean for academic and student affairs at UF's law school, has been meeting with each new student. He asks the same question: If either FAMU or FIU's law school had been open, would you have gone there instead of UF?

    "The overwhelming number, white and minority, said they would still have come here," Shannon said.

    That raises a critical question: Can FAMU attract enough additional black applicants to significantly increase the pool of black lawyers in Florida, which now accounts for only 2 percent of the Florida Bar?

    FAMU officials say they can, though it almost certainly will require a substantial amount of out-of-state recruiting.

    FAMU has been doing that for years on the undergraduate level; this year, about 25 percent of its enrollment came from outside Florida, by far the largest percentage in Florida's university system.

    "FAMU is a brand that is known nationwide," Ammons said.

    But that's not the goal for the law school, said Uhlfelder, who has reminded FAMU officials the school was created for Florida's benefit.

    "We have no guarantee those students would stay here after they graduate," he said. "That concerns me a great deal."

    There is nothing to prevent FAMU from recruiting out of state, and administrators are offering no assurances that they won't.

    "We'll do what's best for the law school," Ammons said.

    But he hopes a bigger market will be FAMU's own graduates, dozens of whom leave Florida every year for a legal education.

    Succeeding there will not be easy. During a recruitment fair earlier this month, representatives from 52 different law schools were on the FAMU campus looking for applicants.

    And even if FAMU manages to hold its own against more established -- not to mention accredited -- institutions, the law school will still have a lot of seats to fill. FAMU expects enrollment to exceed 600 within five years.

    "It will be difficult, but certainly not impossible," said James Douglas, a former dean at the Texas Southern College of Law who is working as a consultant for FAMU.

    One approach, he said, will be to emphasize the school's "inclusive environment."

    "I know a lot of people don't put much credence in that, but it matters," he said.

    Another avenue is to sell the future value of a FAMU degree.

    "Sometimes students are better off jumping on a winner when it's on the way up," Douglas said.

    FAMU said the school hopes to offer specialized programs of particular interest to African-Americans. One would be civil rights law. Another would be sports law.

    Ammons acknowledges, however, that it will be several years before those programs are up and running. The school first has to hire appropriate faculty.

    In the meantime, the students FAMU goes after will be asked to sacrifice a lot.

    "The two numbers prospective law students care about most are bar passage rates and their salaries six months after graduation," said Larry Garvin, an associate dean at FSU's college of law. "At least for a while, the new schools are going to be at a disadvantage."

    A cascading effect

    Then there is the wild card -- One Florida. The legislation that created the new schools was very specific on one point: No racial preferences were to be used in deciding who gets admitted.

    Some think FAMU could find itself with more white applicants than black.

    FAMU officials say they aren't worried.

    They doubt their school will be particularly attractive to white students, given the university's long history as a predominantly black institution. They say most of their scholarship money will be earmarked for African-Americans, which is prefectly legal under One Florida.

    But every year, the state's accredited law schools turn away several thousand white applicants. In recent years, several hundred of those students have been so intent on securing a legal education they applied for a seat at unaccredited law schools, knowing full well that even if they graduated, they might not be allowed to take the Bar exam, which means they couldn't practice law.

    "It's hard to say how many white students will apply . . . but given the differences in tuition, it's reasonable to assume some will," said Dennis Lynch, the dean of the University of Miami's college of law.

    "It could be an issue," said FIU's Rosenberg.

    So could what Garvin, the FSU dean, refers to as the "cascading effect." In other states that have eliminated racial preferences in recent years, the most pronounced declines in minority enrollment have occurred in their top professional schools, especially medical and law colleges.

    Students that were being admitted into the top schools through preferences were instead "cascading down" to less prestigious schools on other campuses. That lessened their access to prestigious clerkships and to the alumni network that can provide lucrative jobs and a launching pad to political influence.

    "I don't know how much that would happen here, but it wouldn't be a desireable outcome," Garvin said.

    FAMU supporters dismiss that possibility. In fact, they find it more than a little insulting.

    "Our intention is to build a world-class law school," Ammons said.

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