UF law school’s failing diversity spells danger for democracy | Opinion

Before I saw the picture, I saw the cryptic joke: “I see four and a possible.” When I opened the image, I immediately understood. As I scanned the photo of some 200 beaming students, I could only make out four, possibly five visibly Black faces strategically dispersed through the crowd. Finally, I saw the caption, “Meet the UF Law Class of 2026,” and what had started as a joke hardened into a lump in my throat.

Reviewing the UF Levin College of Law’s most recent report to the American Bar Association reveals that Hispanic and Black enrollments have declined precipitously in just three years. In the class of 2023, 27% of UF law students were Black or Hispanic compared to 41% of the state population. For the following Class of 2024, that percentage fell to 24%, and for the Class of 2025, it fell further to 21%.

This year’s ABA disclosures will not be released until December, but based on the stunning class photo from this year’s incoming class, it appears the ratio has continued to plummet. Even more disturbingly, Levin’s downward trend is occurring as other law schools have made diversity gains, with last year’s national admitted law school class cited as the most diverse on record.

Taonga Leslie is director of Policy and Program for Racial Justice at the American Constitution Society.
Taonga Leslie is director of Policy and Program for Racial Justice at the American Constitution Society.

UF Law’s decline in diversity is a logical outcome of the very explicit stance Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken against diversity, education and inclusion (DEI), including signing bills banning funding for DEI at public universities, banning AP African American studies, and censoring discussion of race-related topics in school (while highlighting the beneficial effects of slavery). With fewer attorneys of color, there will be fewer champions to challenge the dubious constitutionality of these measures. And with DEI funding eliminated, it will be harder to measure the scale of damage going forward.

It would be easy to forget that a mere five years ago, Florida was not, as it is currently being portrayed, a single party state in thrall to white supremacy, but a contested battleground for the soul of the nation. It was Floridians who, in 2018, shocked the nation by approving by a two to one margin a constitutional amendment intended to restore voting rights to convicted felons. It was also Floridians that held the closest gubernatorial race in the nation, with the current governor elected with less than half a percent of votes.

Seeing the precarity of power in a closely divided state, that governor quickly set about consolidating power in other ways — by passing bills to thwart felon enfranchisement, aggressively gerrymander legislative maps, and purge democratically elected local officials. Sadly, these efforts have been highly successful. For much of the nation, the Florida of 2018 has already been forgotten. The same pundits who lauded Stacey Abrams for “saving” Georgia (i.e., investing resources to unleash the power that was always there), wrote off Florida as unwinnable.

Watching the decay of democracy in Florida from outside the state is like watching a fire in your neighbor’s kitchen. The question is not if, but when it will become your problem. As one of the largest, most politically competitive states in the union, Florida will continue to play a decisive role in national elections and serve as a model for other states. The current governor could be one election away from the White House (though his campaign is failing miserably so far).

Advocates and activists who care about representative democracy should flock to Florida as civil rights leaders flocked to Mississippi in the ’60s. Those who cannot come should send their resources, money and networks. Law firms need to offer pro bono representation in cases challenging the slew of anti-democratic and anti-education measures Florida has enacted and add the capacity that is so swiftly declining. Funders need to fund. While pundits debate whether Florida is winnable, what is clearer than ever is that we cannot afford not to fight.

Taonga Leslie is director of Policy and Program for Racial Justice at the American Constitution Society. He was born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. He holds degrees from Yale Law School, Harvard University and Gainesville’s Eastside High School.