AUSTIN, TEXAS — AUSTIN, Texas -- Heeding the decision of a federal court, Texas has ended affirmative action in college admissions. But on the sprawling University of Texas campus, a place roused more often by football than by politics, the end has not come quietly.
Minority enrollment in professional schools has fallen. A law professor outraged the campus with his observation that minority students "are not academically competitive." A thousand noisy protesters occupied the law school.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson on Tuesday drew an overwhelmingly white throng of 5,000 repeating his chant, "I am somebody."
Students at a school generally described as apathetic found themselves swept into a debate on the importance of diversity in the classroom, on fairness in college admissions and on freedom of speech, particularly when the speech is unpopular.
It's all added up to disrupted classes and unwelcome national publicity, many students and faculty say. They fear the country now has the impression that minorities are not welcome here.
"It casts a bad light," said Edward Garrison, a law student who is the son of an Anglo father and Hispanic mother. "It makes people think there's racial hostility at the school, and I don't think there is."
"Try to hold classes in the midst of this," said Jennifer Mathis, a third-year law student, as hundreds of protesters shouted "We won't go back" from the law school lobby.
But some on campus believe the chanting and protesting helps by focusing attention on a tough problem: How to attract more African-American and Mexican-American students to UT, which its dean says has graduated more African-American and Mexican-American lawyers combined than any other law school in the country.
A federal appeals court ruled last year that ethnicity cannot be considered when offering admissions and financial aid.
"It's been great," student body President Marlen Whitley, who is black, said of the turmoil. "What we've got now is momentum for a lot of thinking, a lot of talking."
First, however, came a lot of anger.
Last week, law Professor Lino Graglia told reporters -- in 'N language bereft of soothing nuance -- that "blacks and Mexican Americans are not academically competitive with whites in selective institutions. They have a culture that seems not to encourage achievement."
Long an opponent of racial preferences, Graglia had voiced the same beliefs many times before. But on a campus now sensitive to racial issues, the comments caused an uproar.
Though most of his fellow law professors disagreed with Graglia's statements, they defended his right to make them. "He glories in overstatement," said law Professor Sanford Levinson.
Students and lawmakers demanded Graglia's ouster -- unlikely, as the professor is tenured. Jackson, fresh from leading a protest against the end of affirmative action in California, came to UT to urge students to boycott Graglia's classes.
"The school should be ashamed," Jackson said to the largest political gathering on campus in years. "He represents a national disgrace."
After standing firm for a week, Graglia released a statement saying his comment was "carelessly put, and I regret it." Law school Dean M. Michael Sharlot said he'd found no evidence that Graglia has discriminated against students and said he would not take any disciplinary action.
"I certainly could have expressed them more discreetly," Graglia said of his comments. But he allowed that he was not disturbed by a drop in law school minority enrollment attributed to the end of racial preferences.
"Isn't it an enormous advantage if those people [minority students who were admitted without affirmative action] can say they got in the same as everybody else?" Graglia asked. "That's a remarkable gain."
Why is diversity in a university classroom important?
"You will not be entering a work force that is all white or all male," said Whitley, the student body president, who hopes to attend the UT law school next year. "Any student that enters an institution of higher education interacts with people of different backgrounds and different ethnicities, and that's part of your education."
"Particularly in the law school," Sharlot said, "where students play a large part in educating each other, it's important for students to hear from different people who have experienced the law in very different ways."
RTC But with the court ruling in place, how can UT continue to draw enough minority students to make a difference in a student body of 48,800?
"I don't know of anybody who has a good answer on how one can have a racially and ethnically diverse student body without preferences," said Levinson, who teaches constitutional law.
Universities in other states, where race can still be considered for admissions and scholarships, may siphon off more and more minority students who might have considered UT, Levinson said. "We're playing by a different set of rules from our competitors. So we get killed."
California had banned using race and ethnic background in college admissions. But the governor pushed for an end to affirmative action, a change that was approved by the voters.
The Texas ban, however, was imposed by the court.
The case was Hopwood vs. Texas. The lead plaintiff was Cheryl Hopwood, a white woman who said the University of Texas School of Law rejected her because its admissions policy unfairly favored minorities.
In March 1996, a federal appeals court surprised college administrators around the country by ruling that a school's goal of attracting more minority students to create a diverse student body does not justify racial preferences in college admissions.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, letting the appeals court ruling stand. But Mississippi and Louisiana, the other states in the same appelate circuit, haven't interpreted the case as strictly as Texas Attorney General Dan Morales did.
That was "very disappointing," particularly for the UT law school, Sharlot said.
"We were not just paying lip service to diversity," the dean said. "We have been unusually successful in attracting and graduating minority students."
But this year, many minority students didn't bother to apply. "If they didn't feel they were welcome, they saved their time and money for other applications," Sharlot said.
Last fall, the first-year law school class included 31 black students and 42 Mexican Americans. This year, four African Americans and 26 Mexican Americans started law school at UT.
"The fact that not only did we admit many fewer minorities this year but that many fewer applied is a punch in the stomach," said law Professor Russell Weintraub.
Demographers project Anglos will be the minority in Texas in about 30 years, Weintraub said, which makes it even more important to educate more black and Hispanic professionals. "Is this the kind of society that can function and survive?" he asked. "Or is it a time bomb waiting to go off?"
Gregory Litt, a law school student from Houston, agreed. "If only white people, or only men or only rich people receive a legal education, then those people will have the best access to justice," he said.
But law student Edward Garrison said he's not sure that skin color is the most important factor in defining diversity.
"In my three years at UT Law, I haven't seen diversity or lack of diversity in racial composition make a difference in the classroom," Garrison said. "It's not race that makes the difference. It's their different experiences that matter." A white student from a poor family can enlighten other students in ways a middle-class black student may not be capable of, he said.
Jennifer Mathis, another law student, said the controversy also offers a lesson about free speech and tolerance of unpopular ideas.
"Diversity means diversity of opinion," Mathis said. "If you want diversity, you've got to be able to disagree with what someone else says. Even if you disagree [with Graglia], you should support his right to say it.
"If you don't, that's the beginning of fascism. And that scares me."
Pub Date: 9/19/97