BATON ROUGE, LA.
One of the most powerful African Americans in the Louisiana Legislature is warning that historically Black Southern University Law Center may be turning too White.
Caucasian students accounted for 33 percent of the Baton Rouge law school's total enrollment for the 2002-2003 academic year, while 65 percent of the student body was African American. Other races accounted for the remaining 2 percent.
But state Rep. Arthur Morrell, a Democrat from New Orleans who chairs the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, said he is concerned that the growing White enrollment may displace prospective Black law students.
"That school was created for a reason, and if that reason is dissipating, what's going to happen to the minorities who want to attend law school but can't get in?" Morrell asked.
Morrell said when he attended Southern University law school years ago, it was only about 10 percent White.
"What's going to happen if you get 60 or 70 percent White? Is it still going to be considered a historically Black law school?" Morrell asked. "The historical mission isn't being accomplished when there are more and more non-minority students being admitted," Morrell said.
Southern Law Center Chancellor Freddie Pitcher Jr. said he was surprised at Morrell's attack, which came at a state legislative budget hearing. Pitcher said the school's diversity should be applauded, not criticized.
"We have one of the most diverse law schools in the nation, and it's good for Southern University and it's good for Louisiana," Pitcher says. "It's a great mixture, and folks are getting along fine."
In addition to producing most of Louisiana's Black attorney and judges, the law center has produced a number of White judges, lawmakers and district attorneys, Pitcher said.
Among the White students who are currently attending Southern University Law Center is Louisiana Governor Mike Foster, who said he's not aware of race ever emerging as an issue during the three years that he has attended the school on a part-time basis.
"I'm very comfortable going there," Foster says. "I wear my blue jeans to class, and everyone really goes out of their way to make me feel like I fit in."
The governor applauded the Southern Law Center for giving him a chance to study law, even though he's in his 70s. The state's other public law school, LSU, is also located in Baton Rouge, but insists that most students refrain from working their first year.
Now in his third year of part-time study at Southern Law Center, Foster said he plans to continue at the school when he leaves office in January. Under Louisiana law, a governor cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. Foster is a Republican who drew criticism when he was elected because his ancestors owned slaves.
But Foster said his relationships with African Americans, including most members of the state Legislative Black Caucus, have improved dramatically since he started taking classes at Southern Law Center.
According to Pitcher, in addition to the study of law, the law school's diversity gives students a chance to learn how to interact with people from different backgrounds and develop professional relationships that will last as they graduate and practice law.
The governor has had a chance to learn a lot about African Americans by taking classes at the law school and studying with other students after class, Pitcher said.
"He's hosted study groups at the Governor's Mansion, and that's also given many of our African American students an opportunity to see a side of the governor that they wouldn't normally see," Pitcher says.
Pitcher thinks Morrell may be "caught in a time warp," noting that when the Southern Law Center was first founded back in the late 1940s, it was one of the only places that African Americans could go to study law.
"But I think our doors were always open to everyone, even then. …