Three years ago Sharon Booker was working hard to put a good face on a bad situation.
Booker, the admissions director at Florida State University's law school, was trying to figure out how to maintain minority student enrollment after Gov. Jeb Bush's order banned the consideration of race in admission decisions.
"I'm not thinking about how hard it will be because it's just what we have to do," a clearly exasperated Booker said in her office in fall 2000. As a black woman, Booker said she knew she had benefitted from affirmative action. She questioned whether minority numbers could be maintained but planned to do everything she could to keep FSU law school's racially diverse.
"I'm not going into this thinking I'm going to fail," Booker said then. "Our efforts have increased tenfold."
As the Supreme Court today starts hearing an argument against the University of Michigan law school's affirmative action program, Florida's public law schools are settling into the routine of race-neutral admissions. This marks the third year that Florida's public law schools can't consider race as they decide whom to admit. And so far, FSU and the University of Florida say they're succeeding - despite the change in admission factors and the loss of state-funded minority scholarships.
For the past two years, FSU has enrolled a minority population of at least 24 percent - the same percentage it had in fall 2000, the year before Bush's edict took effect. UF's minority percentages have decreased from 27 percent to 25 percent during the same time period, but the school has experienced a significant drop in black students and an increase in Asian students.
Jon Mills, UF law school dean, said the biggest issue facing public law schools in Florida is not race-blind admissions but the loss of state scholarships for minority law students. The state dropped the dozens of scholarships after it opened law schools at Florida A&M University and Florida International University, two schools known for large minority populations. The new schools didn't open until 2002 - after Bush had banned race as an admissions factor.
Now that the minority numbers seem to be tracking consistently each year, FSU administrators feel confident the trend will continue. But right after Bush's announcement, they were concerned.
"When similar mandates have come into effect in other states, the selective law schools have had their minority enrollment, particularly their African-American and Hispanic enrollment, gutted," said Don Weidner, FSU law school dean. "We were concerned that might happen here. And we're pleased to say it did not happen."
But FSU did have to change the way it recruited and admitted students.
"I don't know that it's easy. It's never easy," Booker said. "I think we've found a way to work with it."
FSU's prescription has been multifaceted, ranging from targeting minority-rich schools such as historically black campuses in recruitment visits to making personal phone calls to minority applicants and locking in commitments by star minority students through early admission programs.
Much of what FSU has done has been applied to all prospective students, Booker said, and the result has been higher numbers of applicants each year - a 21-percent increase that first year.
Traditionally, law schools have focused on standardized test scores and grade-point averages, a system that typically puts minorities at a disadvantage. FSU used to send borderline applicants to a committee of law professors who studied their applications and forwarded many because of their race.
In the new process, the superstars on tests are still admitted, but a larger group of applications are being scrutinized by the committee for factors other than race. Professors look at, among other things, an applicant's work experience, whether he or she has overcome hardship, and strength of an applicant's undergraduate education.
In the Michigan law school case before the Supreme Court, applicant Barbara Gutter claims she was denied admission because minority applicants received preferential treatment. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled in favor of the law school in a 5-4 decision in May. The Supreme Court also is hearing a case involving white undergraduate Michigan students rejected in the admissions process who think they were discriminated against. Michigan claims it was trying to enhance the diversity of its campus environment, which it sees as an educational benefit.
Mills said the University of Michigan's goal rings true in Florida among supporters of Bush's One Florida plan.
"A diverse student body is a good thing for everybody," Mills said. "We hope to be able to maintain numbers using a race-blind format, but it's going to be tough without the incentive of scholarships that other places have."