Robert Samuels, Washington Post, April 6, 2015
As he courts Republicans across the country, Jeb Bush boasts that an executive order he signed that ended race-based college admissions in Florida upheld conservative principles while helping minorities.
“We ended up having a system where there were more African American and Hispanic kids attending our university system than prior to the system that was discriminatory,” the former governor and likely presidential contender said recently at a conference of conservative activists.
But at Florida’s two premier universities, black enrollment is shrinking. At the University of Florida in Gainesville and at Florida State University in Tallahassee, administrators say they worry that the trend risks diminishing their standing as world-class universities and hurts the college experience.
The black share of the UF freshman class, for instance, plunged to 6 percent in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available. That is down from 9 percent in 2011.
“If we don’t address this in the next two or three years, I think we’re going to have a problem,” said Brandon Bowden, assistant vice president for student affairs at Florida State, which had a 15 percent drop in the number of black freshmen enrolled between 2000 and 2009. “There will be so few black students on our campus that prospective students [who are black] will choose not to come here because they see no one who looks like them.”
Bush, who is expected to announce a presidential campaign this spring, is the only governor who has signed an order ending affirmative action. Seven other states ban race preferences, but all did so via referendum. Bush’s action in early 2000 thrust him into the forefront of a national debate that continues largely in the courts.
The growth in minority enrollment that Bush now points to is primarily a result of the state’s booming Hispanic population, which has led to a large increase in the share of Hispanic students attending Florida colleges. Between 2000 and 2013, the numbers of Hispanics, African Americans and members of other ethnic groups rose as the state university system got much bigger, with freshman enrollment up 35 percent.
But as a proportion of the overall student population, black enrollment has declined–most notably at UF and FSU. At the time Bush enacted the policy, black students made up 18 percent of all freshmen at Florida colleges. That had dropped to 15 percent by 2009.
Nevertheless, the share of college-age Florida residents identifying themselves as black has remained about 20 percent, while blacks constituted just 13 percent of college freshmen in the state in 2013.
Black students at Florida universities are increasingly concentrated in the state’s lesser-known regional schools, which are in larger cities and have less stringent admissions requirements. The schools benefited from the system Bush enacted to replace affirmative action, which guaranteed spots in the state’s 11 universities to the top 20 percent of graduates from every high school.
Bush declined to comment through his spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell. She said Bush tried to boost minorities’ opportunities as governor by expanding college preparatory courses and creating a grant program that directed $23 million to help first-generation college students.
“Governor Bush established these programs because he believed it was an economic and moral imperative to ensure every student had the opportunity to achieve high expectations without being held to different standards based on racial preferences,” Campbell said. “Eliminating these preferences allowed students to succeed on their own merits, better preparing them for a competitive global economy.”
Yet, at UF, many black students wonder whether they will ever be judged on merit. Blacks have become such a rarity on campus that many say it is not unusual for strangers to ask whether they attend the nearby community college.
Bush enacted his One Florida Initiative in 2000 as anti-affirmative-action activist Ward Connerly was gathering signatures to place a state constitutional amendment on Florida’s ballot. Already, Connerly had successfully led ballot initiatives in California and Washington state to ban racial preferences. In Texas, a court had banned affirmative action as well, although the Supreme Court would later invalidate that ruling.
The order, which ended race preferences for college admissions and state contracting, sparked mass demonstrations by black lawmakers and students. Bush accused his critics of clinging to the past. “We will not take one step back in the struggle against racism and discrimination,” he said at the time. “The place we are heading is a place where opportunity is real and lasting, not false and forced by government.”