Mississippi appeal refused – Ayers v. Fordice, college admission standards and black enrollment

The refusal of the U.S. Supreme Court to consider an appeal by
plaintiffs in the long-running Ayers v. Fordice case has given
Mississippi state officials breathing room to prove that a
controversial college admissions plan is not reducing access for Blacks
to the state’s public university system.

Despite drops in the numbers of incoming Black freshmen, statistics
show that overall Black enrollment in Mississippi public universities
is higher than ever before and state officials are praising that
progress.

“We’re very pleased that our minority enrollment is increasing,” says one state university administrator.

However, this news is providing little solace to the plaintiffs in
the Ayers v. Fordice case. They consider the drop in Black freshmen
enrollments to be unacceptable and damaging.

Enrollment of African American freshmen in Mississippi’s eight
public universities dropped by 8.3 percent to 2,560 students from
1996-97 to 1997-98 while the total number of African American students
increased by 1.8 percent to 19,254 students during the same period.
From 1995-96 to 1996-97, Black freshman enrollment fell seventeen
percent while total Black enrollment increased by 3.6 percent at the
eight public universities.

In the latest development of the twenty-two year old desegregation
battle over Mississippi’s higher education system, the Supreme Court
last month declined to consider an appeal by the plaintiffs, bowing
instead to a Justice Department opinion that the case was too
“premature” for the court to review it a second time.

Plaintiffs have argued that revise college admission standards are
causing “irreparable” harm to your Black who have failed to gain
admission to Mississippi public colleges. They contend that there are
hundreds of Blacks being rejected who might have gained admission to
the college system under old admission standards.

In contrast, Mississippi officials say there has been a surge of Black students matriculating into the public universities.

James Luvene, a member of the state’s College Board, says the
overall number of Blacks enrolling in Mississippi’s public universities
has increased despite two consecutive years of declines in Black
freshmen enrollment at the system’s historically Black institutions.

Mississippi College Board spokeswoman Pam Meyer says that despite
the decline in certain freshman enrollment categories, the state is
making progress in bringing Black students into the public university
system. The students are being recruited largely from community
colleges.

Meyer adds that the College Board members agreed with the Supreme Court’s refusal to consider the plaintiff’s latest appeal.

“If the case had gone back to the Supreme Court, we would have had
to devote energy to litigation rather than improving educational
programs at our schools,” she says.

Luvene, who is African American, says he has no problems with
letting the Ayers v. Fordice case proceed under the purview of the
federal district court as long as Black enrollment in Mississippi
public colleges continues to grow or remains steady. However, if
overall Black enrollments should fall, Luvene says he would propose
modification of college admission policies to the College Board.

Revised admissions standards, requiring higher ACT scores for
students seeking admission to the historically Black public colleges,
took effect in the 1996-97 academic year. Students who are unable to
meet admission standards to any of the three Black public universities
can enroll in a special summer remedial program and eventually gain
admission to college.

State officials attribute the increasing numbers to vigorous
recruitment by the four-year colleges among community college students.

“We are aggressively recruiting community college students more so
now than a few years ago,” says Dr. Richard H. Mullendore, vice
chancellor for student life at the University of Mississippi. “It’s a
very attractive market.”

Two Decades of Struggle

Since 1975, a group of Black plaintiffs — which include U.S. Rep.
Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) — has sought to desegregate Mississippi’s
public college system, which has traditionally underfunded the state’s
historically Black schools.

In 1992, the Supreme Court issued a decision in the case that
declared Mississippi had a segregated college system. As a result, a
federal district judge devised a plan — in cooperation with state
officials — to desegregate the public universities.

Plaintiffs have been critical of the plan approved by U.S. District
Judge Neal Biggers Jr. since he presided over the ten-week Ayers v.
Fordice trial in 1995. The plan included more money for programs and
buildings at the Black universities, revised college admissions
standards, and a revised remedial education program for the public
universities. Unsatisfied with Bigger’s plan, the plaintiffs appealed
it to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Attorneys in the Civil Rights Appellate Division of the Justice
Department filed a motion in support of the plantiffs’ appeal, arguing
that the plan was having a devastating effect on the admission of Black
freshmen. In a brief filed by Justice Department attorneys in late
1996, attorneys reported that 1,638 fewer Black freshmen were admitted
to Mississippi’s public universities in fall 1996 than in fall 1995.

Last April, the New Orleans-base Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals
upheld much of Judge Bigger’s ruling and refused to consider the
request of more money for the historically Black colleges. In
September, the plaintiffs, frustrated over the Fifth Circuit ruling,
appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Civil Rights Appellate Division of the Justice Department then
filed a “brief in opposition” that asked the Supreme Court to refrain
from considering the case. Although the department agreed with the
position that “the district court’s remedial order, if not substantial
modified on requences for the educational opportunities of African
American students in Mississippi”. They argued that a Supreme Court
“review of the district court’s remedial order at this stage would be
premature.”

Believing that the state of Mississippi and the federal government
should act immediately to stem the decline in Black freshman
enrollment, Alvin Chambliss Jr., the lead attorney for the plaintiffs,
asked the Supreme Court for further clarification of the 1992 ruling
and a review of the Bigger’s desegregation plan in the appeal.

Chambliss estimates that some 2,500 Black students are being denied
admission annually as freshmen to Mississippi and the federal
government should act immediately to stem the decline in Black freshman
enrollment, Alvin Chambliss Jr., the lead attorney for the plaintiffs,
asked the Supreme Court for further clarification of the 1992 ruling
and a review of the Biggers’ desegregation plan in the appeal.

Chambliss estimates that some 2,500 Black students are being denied
admission annually as freshmen to Mississippi colleges because of the
revised admission standards.

“There’s irreparable harm because thousands of Black students are
not gaining access to college. [The higher education system] will never
be able to recapture those students,” Chambliss says.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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