AUSTIN, TEXAS — Four years ago, Marlon Whitley would have been honored to attend the prestigious law school at the University of Texas at Austin.
That was before a federal court ruling forced UT to stop considering ethnic background in its admissions. Now Mr. Whitley and dozens of his friends are sending law-school applications anywhere but UT, to Harvard and Emory and U Penn - and even other state schools like Texas Tech and the University of Houston.
"There is definitely a feeling of shunning UT law school," says Whitley, an African-American student who has just finished his term as president of student government as a UT undergrad. "It's an issue of tone. Those other schools ... are more realistic in coming up with ways to attract students of color."
While administrators are still gathering the statistics, there is clear evidence of an exodus from UT-Austin's law school since the 1996 court ruling. Minority applications are down by half at UT, which once produced more minority lawyers than any other school in the nation. Administrators in California predict a similar story in law schools at their public universities, where voters outlawed affirmative action in college admissions. It's a trend that seems to be giving pause to other public colleges and universities that might also be under pressure to end affirmative action.
"If you'll notice, you haven't seen a lot of moves in other states" to dismantle affirmative action, says Jamie Merisotis, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington. "Several states are watching what happens, particularly the legal questions, and see how all this plays out before they pick it up themselves."
To be sure, falling minority applications in Texas and California may have as much to do with atmospherics as they do with law. Immediately after the federal court decision (Hopwood v. University of Texas Law School), for instance, a conservative UT law professor drew protests for saying that minority students weren't competitive with whites because their cultures didn't encourage excellence.
Show me the numbers
Whatever their causes, though, the statistics at UT law school are undeniable. Applications this spring from African-American students are down to 111 from 225 last year; applications from Latinos were down as well, with only 249 compared with 306 last year. This trend almost guarantees that more law-school slots will be awarded to white and Asian students.
Different ethnic groups will be affected in different ways by the end of affirmative action, of course, and some experts predict that Hispanics may eventually bear the brunt of the change.
"More than 60 percent of all Hispanics are in those two states [California and Texas]," says Jorge Chapa, a political scientist at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Government at UT, who is conducting a study on the end of affirmative action at UT.
While some Latino law students will apply to high-priced Roman Catholic-run colleges like St. Mary's University in San Antonio, many will shift to other programs.
"Certainly this is going to cut access [to higher education]. The only kids who have the choice are those who have money," says Mr. Chapa.
But for Nichele Taylor, UT's loss is simply another school's gain. An African-American honors student, Ms. Taylor was accepted at University of Pennsylvania and at Duke University law schools. But she has opted to put law school on hold to take an overseas posting with Anderson Consulting.
"I was not satisfied with their [UT's] desire to go after diversity," says Taylor. But her decision was not based entirely on a disagreement over affirmative action. "Law school requires a lot of time ... and a lot of concentration. I don't want to have all that obstructed by racial politics."
Income as a factor
Unable to use race as a factor in admissions, some schools - including UT-Austin and several schools in California - are giving greater consideration to students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. But even this method doesn't seem to attract a diverse student body.
At the University of California in Los Angeles law school, for instance, only 21 of 1,009 students accepted for the 1997 school year were black. The reason: There are many more poor white students than poor black or Hispanic ones.
As a member of the UT faculty committee that chooses future law students, Terri LeClercq expects the story here to be much the same. A defender of affirmative action, she views the falling minority applications this spring with much sadness.
"I am proud of the fact that UT law school graduates more minorities than any other school in the country," she says. "To me, what's sad is that the Fifth Circuit Court [of Appeals] decision somehow got translated that we don't want minorities. But we want them so much that we went out of our way for them and we got sued for it."
Even so, Ms. LeClercq says she looks forward to interviewing the next crop of prospective law students over the next few weeks.
"If you are ever feeling a little depressed," says the senior lecturer, "just sit in on one of these interviews. You will meet some of the most extraordinary people the world has ever produced."