Law school works on diversity

BY SAM LANE | APRIL 01, 2010 7:30 AM

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In an antique room in a small, renovated house west of the University of Iowa’s Boyd Law Building, Collins Byrd attempts to complete a task that has become increasingly difficult: looking beyond students’ applications.

Byrd, the UI College of Law’s assistant dean of admissions, said when prospective students check boxes on their applications noting their ethnicity, background, or sexual preference, he tries not to think about the box itself.

“I’m looking forward to a world where we say, ‘So what?’ ” said Byrd, who is black. “It’s not the box you’ve checked, it’s the experience you’ve gained from that.”

As law schools continue to stress classroom diversity, Byrd and others in the UI College of Law community have amped up minority recruitment efforts and saw an increase in such applications this year.

The law school is also in the process of revamping its diversity statement, something faculty and students said they hope can provide a vision for the future.

T.J Patton, a co-president of the Iowa Student Bar Association, said the statement will be portrayed prominently on the college’s website and on a plaque outside the building.

“We have diversity across campus,” Patton said. “But there’s no common starting point or apex. We didn’t have a common statement to provide a goal.”

The proposed statement awaits approval from the Faculty Diversity Committee. If it receives a majority vote, it will move to the entire law faculty, likely later this month.

In 2009, Byrd sifted through 256 applications from minority students. Of those applicants, 27 ended up enrolling in the college. So far this year, Byrd has seen 342 minority applications, a 33.6 percent increase. However, overall application numbers have also increased.

Byrd attributed the spike to a few factors.

He said a struggling economy makes students more likely to apply to graduate/professional school instead of testing the waters in a weak job market. The college waived application fees for some students and created a more aggressive direct mailing program.

Byrd noted that, because the law school does not have the prominence or big-city location of other law schools, it must actively recruit students. In past years, the college has lacked the financial resources to do that.

But this year was different.

“We took a few risks,” Byrd said. “We’re the kind of school that has to wave the Hawkeye flag. We are not the kind of school that can get applications without physically getting out there.”

Byrd said they visited all-black schools and attempted to dispel common stereotypes about the law school.

“It’s an inexact science,” the 52-year-old said. “You don’t just press a button and voilà.”

Nationally, the percentage of minority applicants to law schools have been relatively static, though admissions have decreased by 2 percent over the past two years, according to the Law School Admission Council.

“The university was founded on a history of opening doors,” said Len Sandler, a clinical professor in the UI College of Law. “We want to make sure we put out the welcome mat. People know we have a commitment to diversity. We also want to make sure it’s meaningful and heartfelt.”

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