Univ. of Arkansas prevents prof. from studying race-based admissions data

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock law professor is suing the school for withholding public data that he claims will show that race-based admissions policies are a disservice to minority students.

Prof. Robert Steinbuch, who has taught at the university’s Bowen School of Law since 2005, told Campus Reform that although the school has provided the exact same data sets to him on two prior occasions, he is now not only being stonewalled over his Freedom of Information Act request, but is also being subjected to retaliation from administrators.

“I have long had an interest in admissions, and as a consequence I served on the Admissions Committee and have written extensively about the issue,” Steinbuch explained. “In the process, I have obtained public data from my university.”

According to Steinbuch’s legal complaint, a copy of which he provided to Campus Reform, he first filed a FOIA request with the school for admissions data (with personal information redacted) in 2012. The school initially resisted, but eventually complied after a state legislator intervened to secure an opinion from the Attorney General requiring full disclosure of the requested information.

“The school makes up a spreadsheet every year or so because they do their own internal analysis of admissions,” Steinbuch told Campus Reform. Yet when he submitted a second FOIA request for that data in 2013, he claims that law school dean Michael Schwartz redacted information on race, only correcting the issue when Steinbuch reminded him of the AG’s opinion that he was legally entitled to that information.

This year, Steinbuch claimed the school was even more recalcitrant, redacting information about race, LSAT scores, and undergraduate GPA. “They took out essentially all of the relevant information,” he said.

Schwartz told Steinbuch that the information could not be provided because “it is reasonable to assume your knowledge of the applicants, particularly applicants whose credentials are distinctive in terms of being higher or lower relative to their peers.” As a result, Schwartz concluded, “it is therefore reasonably likely that, if we were to provide the redacted information, you would be able to infer identity and therefore the data is data that could reasonably be expected to lead to personally identifiable information.”

A recent amendment to Steinbuch’s suit additionally alleges that after he had filed his original complaint against Dean Schwartz regarding the denial of information, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Theresa Beiner engaged in retaliatory behavior by asking at least one minority student in Steinbuch’s class whether Steinbuch had ever mentioned his research during lectures.

“Beiner’s actions have affected [Steinbuch’s] employment by sowing discord among the students, attempting to undermine [Steinbuch’s] credibility with certain segments of the student population, and insinuating that something improper or untoward is behind [Steinbuch’s] research,” the filing states.

“I’ve been publishing articles on this topic for years, going back three deans,” Steinbuch told Campus Reform. “But this time, the associate dean saw fit to contact at least one student in my class.”

Steinbuch says there are indications that Beiner actually interviewed several students, but regardless of the exact number, he believes the timing and nature of even the one conversation that he knows for certain took place strongly suggest retaliation as the motive, particularly in light of the school’s past reluctance to hand over the data.

“The question is whether we are applying different standards to candidates for law school based on race or gender,” he explained. “My past research showed that there were major differences [at Bowen Law School] based on race, but none based on gender.”

Steinbuch asserted that the data he has examined from past years show that “my school in particular has admitted African-Americans with lower metrics than whites,” adding that the same phenomena can be observed with respect to other minority groups, “but the numbers are so small that one cannot say with confidence that there is a pattern.”

Citing research from the non-profit group Law School Transparency showing that students with LSAT scores below 150 are at “high risk” of ultimately failing their bar exams, Steinbuch said the primary motivation for his research is his concern that law schools across the country, including his own, are “competing for a relatively limited pool of minority students to keep their diversity numbers up,” admitting unqualified candidates to the ultimate disservice of the students themselves.

“What we see [nationally] is that African-American fail the bar twice as often as whites, and that is statistically significant,” he pointed out, adding that his research indicates that African-American students would perform at the same level as their white classmates if they were held to the same admissions standards. “My school in particular has admitted African-Americans with lower metrics than whites,” he added.

“The bottom quartile of my school's classes had a score below 149”—putting them in the danger zone, according to LST—“and two-thirds of the African-Americans are in that bottom 25 percent,” Steinbuch told Campus Reform. “We pack the bottom quartile with African-Americans whose score profiles indicate a high likelihood of failure, but we don’t tell them that, and we don’t offer any form of remediation when they come here.”

Steinbuch claims that Schwartz has previously endeavored to obscure the connection between his findings and the Bowen Law School, also using privacy concerns as justification in that case.

Specifically, he claims that when the school finally capitulated and provided him with the unredacted admissions data in 2013, Schwartz asked that any publications resulting from the data identify the source only as “a law school in the South” in order to protect the privacy of students.

“They do not want to discuss in public the treatment that they provide to different groups in terms of admissions,” Steinbuch said, summarizing the school’s evident reluctance to provide him with the information to continue his research.

“It has nothing to do with the privacy of the students, and everything to do with obfuscating the school’s admissions policies,” he reiterated, noting that as long as the matter isn’t publicized, “there won’t be any inquiries by the public, the legislature, etc.”

Both Beiner and Schwartz told Campus Reform that while they are limited in their ability to comment on a pending legal matter, they dispute the allegations made in Steinbuch’s lawsuit.

“I disagree with the allegation that I have retaliated against Professor Steinbuch in any context whatsoever,” Beiner stated.

Schwartz went slightly further, saying not only does he “disagree with all of the allegations in Professor Steinbuch's amended complaint,” but also that “the university always strives to comply with our duties under the FOIA and FERPA statutes.”

Steinbuch, for his part, maintains that since Schwartz complied with his 2013 FOIA request for the same information that is now being withheld, “he must have broken the law one of the two times.”

Moreover, Steinbuch added that “I think the law school administration really raised this to a personal level” by interviewing his students, and said he will be interested to see whether university officials back up the law school administration or attempt to distance themselves from the matter.

“When confronted with bureaucratic intransigence and complete hypocrisy,” he noted, “what alternative does a law professor have but to file suit?”

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