Faculty to survey 8,000 US law students to learn about diversity

May 20, 2004

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the University of Michigan -- and by extension other educational institutions -- can consider race as a factor in admissions in a decision known as "Grutter versus Bollinger."

Educators, lawyers and others are still wrestling over what that ruling does and doesn't mean for higher education. Some see "diversity" as a boon to all students and society and a way of partially compensating for past inequities in opportunities for minorities. Others say it makes little or no difference and can be a form of reverse discrimination -- mostly against whites.

A distinguished legal scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and colleagues have begun trying to answer the question: "Does diversity offer educational benefits?"

The Newtown, Pa.-based Law School Admission Council has awarded the team $165,000 to begin the first phase of their work, which they have been planning for more than a year. If fully funded for two more planned phases, the grant will total more than $400,000 and include a detailed report of findings.

"One of the main things we will do is conduct a national survey of more than 8,000 law students," said Daye, Henry Brandis professor of law at the UNC School of Law. "We are designing and pilot testing the survey now and will test it soon by convening two focus groups to make sure questions are clear and will elicit the information we want."

The project will survey entering students at a representative sample of 55 U.S. law schools about their family backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, academic expectations, career goals and aspirations, he said.

"Our findings can inform critical public policy questions such as, 'Will educational opportunity continue to be available at elite institutions for under-represented minority students,' and 'Would the quality of educations for students be diminished if there were no racial diversity?'" Daye said.

Collaborating with him will be Drs. Abigail Panter, associate professor of psychology at UNC; Walter R. Allen, professor of sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles; and Dr. Linda F. Wightman, professor of educational research at UNC-Greensboro.

Panter specializes in quantitative methodology, especially measurement, program evaluation and multivariate data modeling.

"For this project I am developing and pre-testing the survey items and will monitor data quality and analyze the key research questions using advanced modeling methods in psychometrics," Panter said.

The investigation will entail state-of-the-art quantitative methods and research design through multidisciplinary collaboration to address diversity, which she too calls a critical social issue.

"As a sociologist, I've studied diversity issues in higher education extensively," Allen said. "In this project I'll look deeper into the data through focus groups to develop a better understanding of the meaning of diversity than we can expect to gather from students through written surveys alone."

Wightman has been integrally involved in designing the proposal and will remain as consultant to the research team on all aspects of the study.

"For guidance on the design, data collection and analytical activities, I can draw on my experiences as the principal investigator for the successful Law School Admission Council's National Longitudinal Bar Passage Study," she said.

"This project would not be possible without the contribution each of us makes," Daye said. "While we bring different kinds of expertise, we are each involved in the whole project. For my part, I have offered knowledge of the law school environment, law school admissions and the developing law governing admissions using the diversity rationale."

Daye joined the UNC law faculty in 1972 and from 1981 to 1985 served as dean of the N.C. Central University School of Law School.

A Durham native whose ancestors once were slaves and whose family has owned land in the area since the Civil War, Daye said the kind of study the team is undertaking is an appropriate aspect of the university's ongoing efforts to serve the nation and its citizens. He was a co-signer of the brief the UNC law school filed before the U.S. Supreme Court last year on behalf of the University of Michigan in the Grutter case.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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