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Texas Campus Attracts Fewer Minorities

By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28 1997; Page A01

As classes begin today at the University of Texas, this flagship school in a highly diverse state has become distinctively whiter. Among the freshman class of 6,500, there are only 150 African American students, half last year's number. And the law school, for years one of the nation's major educators of minority lawyers, is welcoming only four African Americans and 26 Hispanics to its first-year class.

University officials agree that the scarcity of minority students – both African American and Hispanic – is a direct fallout of new prohibitions on racial preferences that could affect the university's makeup – and its public image – for years to come.

The experience of Texas is being watched closely around the country because its universities are the first under court order to dismantle affirmative action policies. That court ruling, the so-called Hopwood case, named for the white student who brought a discrimination suit after being denied admission to the university's law school, says that race cannot be used as a factor in admissions. Texas Attorney General Dan Morales ruled that this basic ban on affirmative action also must include financial aid, recruiting and undergraduate programs.

The result, many educators and students here believe, is that the top-ranking minority students feel unwelcome at the University of Texas, and are automatically accepting better offers at out-of-state schools, which still operate under affirmative action policies.

"We are deeply concerned," said Michael Sharlot, dean of the law school. "We're a school that over the past decades has produced more African American and Hispanic lawyers than any other law school in the United States. We've played a major role in diversifying the legal profession. It's tragic because we're not going to be able to continue.

"This is the school that produced Secretary [of Energy Federico] Peña," he said. "This is the school that produced Mayor Ron Kirk of Dallas [who is black]. We're not talking about East Muleshoe University."

This is the first academic year in which the impact of Hopwood has been felt clearly in Texas. Before the ruling, the university, like others around the country, could use race as one factor in deciding which students to admit, a policy that led to acceptance of minorities with slightly lower test scores than those of white students.

And for decades, the first-year law school class would include about 40 African Americans and about 60 Hispanics, graduating a total of 650 African American lawyers and 1,300 Hispanic lawyers over the years. This semester, the first-year class of 488 includes only the four African Americans and 26 Hispanics. The school received applications from 225 blacks, 306 Mexican Americans and 2,515 whites, all of which are down from last year.

In the undergraduate school, among entering freshmen this fall, the number of African Americans was halved, from about 300 in 1996; a university spokesman said the final racial breakdown of the freshman class is not yet available.

California is the only other state with an admissions policy that bans the use of race, with affirmative action banned in the law schools this year and the undergraduate school in 1998. At the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, only one African American is entering the first-year class, and university officials are equally dismayed over the lack of diversity.

"Certainly there is a very serious concern about the fact that we have only one African American in the current class," said University of California spokesman Jesus Mena. Last year, there were 20 African Americans in Berkeley's first-year law class.

In Texas, student leaders have been vocal in their concern that administrators are simply accepting the situation, saying they are bound by a court order and there is little they can do. No one denies that the campus does not reflect the state's population; about a third of the population is either Hispanic or African American and half of its public school students are minorities.

"I really don't think they are doing enough," said Marlen Whitley, president of the Student Government Association. Whitley, 21, who is African American and plans to attend law school next year, finds himself representing a student body that is overwhelmingly white. "I wish the administrators could put themselves in our shoes.

"At this point," he said, "they haven't done so. Their attitude is, 'Well, the law has been made; our hands are tied.' While they're claiming it's so difficult to recruit students, they are still making the effort to go sit in the houses of the athletes they want and persuade them to come to UT. Why not use the same attitude to recruit the scholars to this university?"

But Brenda Burt, assistant to the dean for student equity and diversity, said it is not so easy to combat the problem. She applauds several programs being launched by Whitley and other student leaders, including a "Post-Hopwood Summit," scheduled for October, and campus visitation programs for minority high-school students.

"The image is, they are not wanted here and that, in fact, is not true. It wasn't the university that did this," she said, pointing out that the ruling was a result of the lawsuit and the attorney general's action. "The effort is to say, 'You are all welcome here.' "

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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