BY TREVOR GARDNER
In the last two years, the Law School has witnessed a substantial shift in its African-American population. Out of 62 black students in the Class of 2003, 42 were female and 22 male. This year’s statistics (for students who will graduate in 2004) show a more drastic disparity among blacks where, of a total 59 African-American students, 14 are male. The two-year decline in enrolled African-American males was preceded by a four-year during which the gender ratio was roughly even.
Many speculate that the gender disparity may merely suggest that women are closing a gap that has persisted over the course of legal education. Over the last 10 years, male domination of the legal field has been confronted with a substantial rise in female enrollment in American law schools. In the last five years, law schools nationwide have witnessed a 11 percent decrease in male applicants and a corresponding 5 percent increase in female applicants. These recent advances by women invite the possibility of a more gender-balanced picture in historically male environments like the judiciary and many of the nation’s law firms. The black population’s gender shift is similar, but somewhat more substantial among females with an 8.2 percent decrease in black male applicants and a 10 percent increase in the female applicant pool.
However, the national trend doesn’t fully explain the dramatic two-year decline at the law school, where, in the current 1L class, only 23.7 percent of the black students are men. Dean Joyce Curll of the Admissions Office doesn’t believe the two-year dip necessarily indicates a trend at the law school.
“The committee is always looking at the shape of the pool and trying to get some sense of what people are doing and why.”
Curll said that isolating a definitive cause is difficult since attrition can take place at any of three phases: applications, admissions, and enrollment. Pointing to national trends, Curll suggested that the last two 1L classes may not be unique in the national context.
“It’s a national phenomenon, not just African-American. It signifies an increase in women,” she said.
Whatever the cause of the present gender makeup of the law school’s black population, the HLS community must deal with a new dynamic within the black community at HLS. Professor David Wilkins suggested that in light of the increase in the black female law student population the law school as well as the entire legal community must look more closely at the combination of race and gender.
“The trend makes it very clear that if we’re going to make progress on the race question we have to make progress on the gender question as well,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins said that black women have all the problems facing women in addition to the challenge of belonging to a racial minority.
Wilkins also suggested that the law school community must consider how to best support a smaller community of black men, especially if the trend develops into a long-term demographic shift.
Whether the current 3:1 black female to black male ratio in the 1L class is an anomaly or indicative of a long-term and substantial demographic shift is a question that will likely hold the attention of both the Admissions Office and the Admissions Committee in years to come.
“I guess I think if it repeated itself [in the admitted Class of 2005] I would be more concerned,” Curll said. “As far as I can tell from an eye-ball view its not as much that we had a lower yield among men as it is a higher yield among women. [However], I do think we should keep our eyes on what is happening with [black] males.”