Prof prevails in FOIA fight for race-based admissions data

An extended legal battle between the University of Arkansas and one its law professors has come to a close after the school agreed to let him study the effects of race-based admissions policies.

Campus Reform initially reported in November 2015 that law professor Robert Steinbuch was provided with heavily redacted data in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request he had filed with his school seeking to obtain an internal spreadsheet the law school maintains to conduct analyses of admissions.

However, when Steinbuch’s FOIA request was returned, he was surprised to learn that the school had redacted information about race, LSAT scores, and undergraduate GPA, telling Campus Reform at the time that “they took out essentially all of the relevant information.”

Steinbuch later sued the school’s administration on the grounds that it had violated the state’s FOIA statute, simultaneously alleging that he had also faced retaliation from two fellow professors in an effort to discourage his research, which they complained could be “distressing” to students.

[RELATED: Arkansas law prof faces retaliation for studying race-based admissions policies]

His colleagues had the clear support of law school dean Michael Schwartz, who argued that providing the redacted information would violate federal privacy laws because Steinbuch might be able to deduce the students’ identities from it.

Steinbuch, though, challenged Schwartz, noting that such concerns had never arisen in the past when Steinbuch requested, and received, the same information.

“My research conflicts with certain political viewpoints, so when people with those viewpoints are presented with that conflict, they see it as a challenge, and perhaps we’re seeing some of the results of that conflict,” he explained to Campus Reform.

Indeed, when Steinbuch wrote an op-ed about the case in The National Jurist, Schwartz caught wind of it and wrote in an email exchange obtained by Campus Reform that he was “very concerned about the harm caused to the law school, our students, and our alums by the inaccurate info being put out here.”

[RELATED: Arkansas law school Dean worried about ‘harm’ from prof’s FOIA suit]

Some of Steinbuch’s colleagues even sought to have his grading privileges suspended by suggesting that the very fact that he had wanted to study the effects of race-based admissions policies made him biased against minority students in his classes.

The battle raged on for more than a year, in courtrooms and classrooms alike, until recently when Schwartz resigned from his position after facing harsh criticism from both sides of the aisle after inviting his law students to a counseling session where they could cope with their post-election grief.

On Tuesday, however, Steinbuch announced that the law school had finally handed over the data, ten years’ worth to be exact, but that he had uncovered certain inconsistencies with the statistics that Schwartz had previously touted.

Whereas Schwartz had declared in a December 2015 email that the first-time bar passage rate was 75 percent for white students and 80 percent for minority students, Steinbuch determined that white students actually had a pass rate of 78 percent, compared to 53 percent for black students and 80 percent for all other minorities combined.

Notably, Steinbuch also found that of all the students admitted whose LSAT scores were below the benchmark of 150, just two managed to pass the bar exam on their first try.

[RELATED: Law schools worry bar-passage standard will undermine diversity]

“To say the least, it is as if the Dean and I are looking at two different universes of data. What are we to make of these dramatic differences between my snapshot and the administration’s?” he asked, clarifying that he wasn’t suggesting the administration had lied but simply wanted to “provide a snapshot” of his findings.

“I believe that a future of high-quality legal education at Bowen depends on an honest re-evaluation of our admissions and disclosure practices in depth,” he added, confirming with Campus Reform that the school agreed to provide the data to settle the FOIA aspect of the case, providing him with “a new spreadsheet with most of the data they had refused to produce before [he] filed.”

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