In his 19 years as a law professor at UCLA, Richard Sander has pondered a nagging question: Does affirmative action help or hinder African Americans who want to become lawyers?
Two years ago, he published research suggesting that racial preferences at law firms might be responsible for black lawyers' high rate of attrition and difficulty making partner. He hypothesized that in the interest of promoting diversity, law firms sometimes hired black lawyers who were underqualified, and that when there was a "credentials gap" between black and white lawyers at a firm, black lawyers often were less likely to advance and more likely to leave the firm.
The research stirred debate throughout the legal community, and Sander said he was surprised at the vehemence with which people attacked his motives. A former Volunteers in Service to America participant, fair-housing activist and campaigner for Chicago's first black mayor, Sander, who is white, insisted he was simply trying to examine an important question.
Now the professor has waded into another controversy. Sander says his goal this time is to examine whether law schools set up many affirmative action beneficiaries for failure by admitting them into rigorous academic environments in which they are ill-prepared to compete. He proposes to study almost 30 years of data on State Bar of California exam-takers. In the end, he hopes to explain why, as reported in a Law School Admissions Council study in the 1990s, blacks are four times as likely as whites to fail the bar exam on the first try.
The state bar has refused to facilitate his probe. Citing privacy concerns, the bar has denied him access to detailed demographic data collected from exam-takers since 1972.
Many lawyers, scholars and diversity advocates have applauded the bar's action.
His conclusions in the earlier study and a paper he wrote for the North Carolina Law Review in June 2006 "essentially argued that law firms should not hire black graduates," said Deborah Waire Post, a Harvard Law School graduate, professor at New York's Touro Law Center and co-president of the Society of American Law Teachers.
"What this suggests is that Richard Sander is not studying affirmative action or diversity policies, he is marshaling evidence to show that blacks do not belong in elite schools or elite firms," Post said.
She likened Sander's academic assessments of affirmative action to "the late 19th and early 20th century when this country was beset by 'scholars' and 'scientists' who constructed theories of racial inferiority to justify the subordination of African Americans."
From a tidy campus office crammed with the output of academia, Sander defends his proposed project as necessary to show that admissions and hiring preferences "hurt the very people they were intended to help."
He and fellow doubters of the efficacy of affirmative action last month asked the California Supreme Court to compel the state bar to turn over what Sander describes as "the perfect database." The bar records, which include age, race, gender, academic records and bar scores, nicely divide the data before and after Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot initiative that prohibited state universities from considering race, ethnicity, gender or national origin in admissions.
Among those hoping to probe the bar data with Sander is Doug Williams, an associate professor of economics at Sewanee University of the South in Tennessee. He defends the project as necessary to test a "reasonable hypothesis" as to why there are racial gaps in law school graduation rates and bar passage.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, joined Sander in his lawsuit against the California bar on grounds that the lawyer-licensing institution is a publicly funded government agency whose records should be open to scrutiny by legitimate researchers.
Scheer suspects the bar's resistance is driven by fear of controversy and bureaucratic inertia.
"We see our job as getting the data and giving it to both sides" of the debate over the value and efficacy of affirmative action, Scheer said. "Politics should not block otherwise valid, even if controversial, academic research."
Nevertheless, he sees validity in the bar's concerns about confidentiality.
"They do need to be made comfortable, to be sure that the data is released in a way that makes it virtually impossible to link any information in it to any particular people," he said.
Holly J. Fujie, incoming president of the state bar, said Sander was denied access to the data because it had been solicited from bar exam-takers with assurances that it would be used only by the bar for purposes of ensuring the test's fairness.