Attracting minorities a priority at UT Law; Aggressive recruiting keeps admissions stable

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page F1

In 1990, a group of black law students and alumni at the University of Toledo decided to turn the tables on the college of law; they graded it for a change.

On minority issues, they said, the law school was only barely above water. It eeked out a D average, they said.

If UT deserved a D, there’s little doubt what grade they would give the public law schools in California and Texas – a big red F.

Both university systems decided to end affirmative action in admission policies, and the effects have been quick and decisive. Last year, the University of California-Berkeley law school accepted 75 African-Americans to its first-year law class.

This year, that number tumbled to 14. UCLA and the University of Texas saw similar drops. Most of those who were admitted decided they’d rather spend their law school years elsewhere: All 14 Berkeley candidates turned the school down. UCLA will have fewer than 10 blacks attending, and Texas might have none.

But the University of Toledo will buck the trend this year. College of Law Dean Albert Quick said that he expects 12 African-Americans to arrive in the fall, doubling last year’s total.

“We’ve never made a stronger effort to bring in minorities than now,” Mr. Quick said.

Blacks still make up well under 10 per cent of the law school’s student body, but their increasing numbers could help UT avoid the fate of California-Berkeley, UCLA, and Texas – a homogenous classroom.

African-American attorneys and law students in Toledo almost universally called ending affirmative action a mistake. “This short-sighted, myopic view is ruining the future,” said Lafe Tolliver, a local black attorney. “It’s just bringing back the stereotypic views of old.

“I chuckle when white folks complain about affirmative action. They’ve had it for hundreds of years.”

From 1992 to 1995, the number of blacks joining each incoming class at UT Law ranged from nine to 19, numbers comparable to many other regional law schools.

But last year’s total – only six African-Americans in a class of 190 – alarmed some. That number meant blacks made up barely 3 per cent of the class of 1999. “The commitment to minority issues here seems to be quite low,” said Rory Smith, a second-year law student and one of those six. “Professors don’t expect us to be able to perform in class, and when we do, they seem surprised.”

In contrast, Ohio State University’s law school had about 25 African-Americans enter last year, more than 10 per cent of the class. Ohio Northern University’s class was about 13 per cent minority, and the University of Michigan’s law school enrolled 21 black first-year students, almost 7 per cent of the class.

The numbers were even more surprising, since last year’s UT class was the first recruited under the leadership of Mr. Quick, who had previously been dean of the law school at Ohio Northern, in Ada. There, he was recognized nationally for his work in promoting African-Americans in the legal profession. He was awarded the Medallion of Justice from the Judicial Council of the National Bar Association for his efforts, and he is a published authority on how to raise minority representation on law school campuses.

Mr. Quick said the law school recruits at historically black colleges and makes special efforts to target prospective minority students. But African-American applicants to law schools are dropping nationwide, and keeping a class multiracial is growing even more difficult.

Administrators say they try to keep law classes diverse because lawyers must be able to determine the merits of many different points of view.

“In a classroom that’s mostly male, white, or anything, you miss out on some great discussion,” said Kent Lollis, a former associate dean at Ohio Northern University’s law school.

Second-year UT law student Praveena Kaw said she was in a family law class last year when a woman said matter-of-factly, “Most American Indians are alcoholics.”

“I told her you can’t really generalize like that,” Ms. Kaw, who is South African, said. “But there’s a tendency here to let racist comments go. Being the only person of color in a class, you often don’t want to speak up.”

Some whites have had only a handful of conversations with minorities, and a diverse classroom can help bridge that gap.

“I’ve had white students come up to me after class and confide they felt uncomfortable with minority clients,” said Rick Mitchell, a black Toledo attorney who teaches part time at UT. “Whites have primarily been in predominantly white institutions, and that affects their perspectives on the world.”

“It’s important for white folks to see black people in positions of authority,” Mr. Tolliver said. “Law school is a good place to show that. Whites need black professors as much as minorities need them.”

UT’s law school currently has only one full-time minority faculty member, Professor Joan Bullock. As recently as 1990, there were none. Ms. Bullock serves on the committee in charge of appointing new faculty, and she said the university is doing all it can to recruit minority professors.

Mr. Quick said two faculty spots would be filled soon, possibly by minorities.

When Ms. Bullock was herself a UT law student in the early 1980s, there were no black faculty. “But I felt welcome,” she said. “There was more isolation, fewer opportunities to make friends, but I still felt welcome.”

Now there are organizations aimed specifically at making blacks feel welcome at the UT law school. The professional association of Toledo’s black attorneys, the Thurgood Marshall Law Association, provides mentors and financial aid to minority law students. While black law students are becoming a rarity in California and Texas, UT’s Black Law Students Association is one of the school’s largest student groups.

Getting into law school has traditionally been more of a numbers game than getting into other college programs. Most top undergraduate schools examine dozens of factors – teacher recommendations, student essays, extracurricular activities, and volunteer work, along with grades and test scores – before deciding a student’s fate. But in America’s law schools, admissions decisions are often based entirely on two numbers: a student’s grade point average and a score on the Law School Admissions Test, the standardized exam for all prospective law students.

And since standardized tests long have been accused of bias against minorities, critics say relying on LSAT scores slants the system against blacks. On average, African-Americans score 10 points lower than whites on the LSAT.

“It’s clearly biased,” Ms. Kaw said. “There’s an economic and social understanding that’s lacking between the people who [devise] the test and the minorities who take them.”

“The ways in which we learn are different,” Mr. Smith said. Minority students fare worse on multiple-choice exams, like the LSAT, than whites, he said. Ironically, most exams in law schools nationwide are essay-based.

But officials at the Law School Admissions Council, which administers the LSAT, said the test is fair to members of all ethnic groups.

“There have been accusations against the LSAT in the past,” Mr. Lollis, now LSAC’s associate executive director, said. But test makers now make special efforts to have more minorities writing questions and examining them for bias, he said. “There is still an unmeasurable social bias, but we believe we’re doing a good job keeping the test fair.”

“The test’s job is to predict a student’s grades during his first year of classes,” Mr. Quick said. “It has done a good job of doing that.” He added that the test weeded out many students who might not be able to survive law school.

“The alternative is to bring in too many people, sit them all down, and tell them, ‘Look to your left, look to your right. One of you won’t be here next year,'” Mr. Quick said. But with the costs associated with a year of law school, he said, that alternative isn’t very attractive.

Even though he calls them useful, Mr. Lollis said colleges over-emphasize test scores in admissions decisions because they can be easily quantified, and because higher LSAT scores make schools look better to those who try to rank America’s law schools, like U.S. News and World Report magazine. “This isn’t the schools’ fault,” Mr. Lollis said. “This is the fault of U.S. News.”

Every year, the magazine publishes rankings of the country’s top colleges, law schools, medical schools, graduate schools – even hospitals and mutual funds. And every year, academics protest having their institutions reduced to a single number, arguing that trying to split hairs between number 14 and number 15 is absurd. The college rankings issue is U.S. News’ most popular each year.

“We’re definitely caught up in the rankings game in this society,” Mr. Quick said. “All schools are sensitive to U.S. News and how they rank you.” LSAT scores figure prominently in the magazine’s formula.

Mr. Quick said he knew some Ohio law firms that used the U.S. News rankings to determine which law schools to visit on recruitment trips. A low ranking could mean even a top graduate gets passed over.

Last year, 150 law school deans from across the country signed a letter asking U.S. News to stop ranking schools. “But the ironic thing is, when they get ranked highly, those same deans are the first to mention their ranking in the alumni newsletter,” Mr. Quick said.

Could affirmative action die the same death in Ohio it has in Texas and California? California has historically dealt with more racial strife than the Buckeye state, but all it took in Texas was a single lawsuit from white students who felt they had been unjustly denied admission.

Mr. Tolliver said a court here could easily echo that Texas ruling. “The courts are very conservative by nature, and could easily adopt the rulings of other courts as guidelines,” he said. He said he doubts a state court would make such a ruling, but federal jurists might. “There are a lot of federal judges appointed by Reagan and Bush who might be sympathetic [to anti-affirmative action arguments]. That would be the death knell of minorities in the law.”

Mr. Quick estimated that, without affirmative action, the UT law school would likely have only half the minority enrollment it does today. “I hope it never comes to that,” he said.