La. Governor Turns Heads By Enrolling in HBCU Law SchoolBy Scott Dyer
BATON ROUGE, La.Five years after former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke helped him capture this state’s highest office, Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster has enrolled at Southern University Law Center. The 70-year-old Republican turned heads with his decision to enroll at the historically Black school instead of at Louisiana State University, a predominantly White institution where he received a chemical engineering degree back in 1951.Foster says he actually approached both law schools about taking some classes shortly after winning his first term as governor in 1995. At the time, neither law school would allow part-time study. But Southern officials had submitted an application to the American Bar Association for a part-time program, and when it was finally approved for this fall, Foster became the first student to take advantage of it.He says that when officials from Louisiana State caught wind of his plan to enroll at Southern, they offered to make some special exceptions so he could enroll there instead.“LSU sent word the other day, ‘We’ll take you.’ But I said, ‘No, you wouldn’t take me before,'” Foster says. Foster’s enrollment in Southern’s law school also prompted approval from his new African American classmates like Bobby Ballard of Monroe. Dressed in baggy clothes and sporting an earring, Ballard was a stark contrast to the balding, pot-bellied Foster, who showed up for the first day of class in a white dress shirt and slacks.Ballard says that he initially thought the governor was going to make a speech when he walked into the class on the first day of law school. “Then [Foster] sat down, and I’m like, whoa, he’s in my class. It was kind of a shock,” Ballard says.Foster says he was caught off guard when the law professor gave his class two tests on the first day. “She gave us two quizzes, right out of the box,” he says. “And one of them I didn’t get the handout on, so I really had to wing it.”Foster says he plans to modify his schedule so that he can study for his eight credit hours this semester. “I go to bed early every night; I go to bed at 8 [p.m.]. I’m hoping to modify that and pick up two or three hours during the week. I figure it’s going to take me about six hours or better each week in reading,” Foster says.He adds that his biggest problem will be that he will have to skip some classes due to prior commitments. “It’s like this Thursday, my second day of class, I’ve got this George W. Bush [fund-raiser in New Orleans] stuff. Well, I really can’t duck that,” Foster says. The law school’s chancellor, B.K. Agnihotri, says students at the Southern University Law Center are allowed to miss a maximum of 20 percent of their classes. Students who miss more than that can’t get credit for the class, and Foster will not be an exception, he says.While the Southern University Law Center is a historically Black school, about 60 percent of its students are Black and the remaining 40 percent are White.Foster says he wants no special privileges or favors. In considering Foster’s application, Agnihotri says his school’s admissions committee considered Foster’s real-life experience, such as his eight years experience on the Senate Civil Law Committee and his experience as governor.“If there were some things [in Foster’s application] that were not totally in compliance, the committee could waive them — and of course, it’s difficult to get a person like him to come to law school,” Agnihotri says.Agnihotri declined to give details about what requirements were waived for Foster, citing a federal law that ensures student privacy. But Foster himself acknowledged that he has not taken the Law School Admissions Test, a standardized screening that is generally required of law school students before they are admitted to law school. But Foster says he will have to take the test at some point, if he is to continue at the school.“I have no preconceived notion about whether I can do this or not — if I bomb out, I bomb out,” Foster says. “I may not be able to do it. If not, I’ll walk away and say, ‘I tried.’ “If you’re afraid of failure, you don’t do very much.”Foster’s enrollment at the historically Black law school is the latest in a series of developments that may work to soothe his past schism with the Black population of Louisiana.During his initial gubernatorial campaign in 1995, Foster was endorsed by Duke, a former klansman and Nazi sympathizer who had made an unsuccessful bid for Louisiana governor four years earlier. Despite pressure from Black and Jewish leaders, Foster made headlines by repeatedly refusing to repudiate Duke.“Why would I repudiate him? He got 40 percent of the vote last time,” Foster said at the time, referring to Duke’s bid for governor in 1991. Four years later, a federal grand jury probe into Duke’s business practices revealed that Foster had paid $152,000 to Duke for a computerized mailing list of his supporters during the 1995 campaign.Duke was originally in the 1995 gubernatorial race himself, but dropped out shortly after the first transaction. Both Duke and Foster deny the purchase was a payoff. After learning about the transaction, the Louisiana state ethics board fined Foster $20,000 for failing to report the purchase of the Duke mailing list in his campaign finance reports.And shortly after he was inaugurated in early 1996, Foster infuriated Louisiana’s African American leaders by moving to rid state government of programs that provided preferences based on race or gender. Foster’s stance on that issue culminated in a civil-rights march on the State Capitol organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The event attracted thousands of protesters.The specter of Duke raised its head again in 1996 when Foster vowed to support any Republican — even Duke — who won a runoff spot against a Democrat in the U.S. Senate race.In both his original 1995 gubernatorial campaign and his 1999 re-election bid, Foster received almost no support from the African American community because he was facing Black opponents. Former U.S. Rep. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, squared off against Foster in the 1995 gubernatorial runoff, and U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, unsuccessfully challenged Foster last year.But in recent months, Foster has shown signs of warming relations with the state’s African American leaders. Over the past two months, in rapid succession, Foster has appointed three African Americans to key administrative posts — Cynthia Bridges was named the new Louisiana state secretary of revenue, Terry Landry was tapped as the new superintendent for Louisiana State Police and Don Hutchinson was appointed as the state’s new Secretary of Economic Development. The moves prompted approval from African American leaders who had previously decried the lack of color in Foster’s administration. But Foster had denied that he considered race in making the appointments. “That means absolutely nothing, except they just happened to be the best people for the job,” Foster says. “It is interesting, but it’s simply that when I started looking for the best people, those were the best people.”
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