Faculty from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UNC-Greensboro and the University of California at Los Angeles have received a $540,000 grant from the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) to continue their study of whether racial diversity in U.S. law schools results in educational benefits.
As highlighted by The Educational Diversity Project at UNC-Chapel Hill, which is conducting the study, “controversy exists as to whether racial diversity offers measurable educational benefits in the law school setting and in the increasingly diverse workforce and society beyond law school.” So it is important to discover the true effect of affirmative action policies. However, the timing and the background of the study’s authors suggest that LSAC may have commissioned the study more to produce support for the belief that affirmative action is just and beneficial than to answer a perplexing question — is affirmative action really beneficial?
Law professor Charles E. Daye and psychology professor Abigail T. Panter of UNC-Chapel Hill, Dr. Walter R Allen, professor of sociology and education at UCLA, and Dr. Linda F. Wightman, emeritus professor of educational research at UNC-Greensboro have already completed the first facet of the study, which involves following 8,500 students who entered about 70 law schools in the fall of 2004 and tracking their progress. The grant was awarded by LSAC under its empirical research program, which awards grants for research about law schools, law students and legal education. The council has awarded more than $1 million to the project’s comprehensive research study since 2004.
Charles Daye, former LSAC President, participated in the preparation of and co-signed the Amicus Brief that the University of North Carolina School of Law submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the University of Michigan School of Law in the Grutter case. Furthermore, one of his professional interests is “assuring access to the legal profession by members of under-represented minority groups.” Dr. Linda F. Wightman, former Vice-President of Operations, Testing, and Research at LSAC, has done extensive educational research. One of her studies, entitled “Are Other Things Essentially Equal? An Empirical Investigation of the Consequences of Including Race as a Factor in Law School Admission” and featured on LSAC’s web site, concludes that “the data provide compelling evidence disputing the claim that including race as a factor in law school admission decisions resulted either in admitting students unqualified for the academic rigor of a legal education or in undermining the academic standards of participating institutions.” She came to this conclusion by avoiding “the misleading conclusions that can result from simple comparisons of total group performance, either on admission credentials or law school performance.”
In addition to being strongly in favor of affirmative action, the researchers of the Educational Diversity Project claim that the study’s methods will “provide further nuance, depth, and richness” to the study. The word “nuance” suggests that the study may use whatever means necessary to paint a favorable picture of affirmative action. As Dr. Wightman has asserted before, evaluating “total group performance” can yield “misleading conclusions.”
This grant comes shortly after Richard Sander, a law professor at UCLA, wrote his study, “The Racial Paradox of Corporate Law Firms,” which will be in the next issue of the North Carolina Law Review. Sander concludes in his study that racial preferences in law firm hiring may actually hurt minority lawyers.
Sander is also the author of “A Systemic Analysis of Affirmative Action in American Law Schools” in 2004. This report concluded that affirmative action in law school admissions hurts minorities. By placing minority students in more elite schools than they would attend if academics were the only consideration, affirmative action has caused some of the disparity between minority and white law school dropout rates and bar passage rates. Sander suggests that without affirmative action, there might in fact be more minority lawyers. This study caused much controversy and led to the publication of many counter studies from what Sander calls “the affirmative action establishment.”
While it is important to assess the effect affirmative action has on student performance and educational experience in law school, such an assessment is only valuable if it is unbiased and truthful. LSAC, as an administrative organization, should be pursuing truth rather than any specific agenda. Unfortunately, commissioning a study to professors with a strong bias is a step in the wrong direction. It seems possible that this study’s consideration of “nuance” and educational experience may suggest that it is being conducted to rebut studies, such as Sander’s, that call into question the benefits of “affirmative action.” A study undertaken by researchers who have not previously staked out a position would inspire more confidence.