Friday, June 29, 2007
Interesting article today in Inside Higher Ed: Spellings Gets Tougher on the ABA, by Doug Lederman:
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has upheld the recommendation of a federal advisory committee that she extend for 18 months her department’s recognition of the American Bar Association body that accredits law schools. But the secretary, expressing clear disapproval of the accreditor’s controversial new “diversity” standard, is also — against the recommendation of the advisory panel — requiring the law school accreditor to report about how it applies the diversity standard.
In December, when the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions appeared before the department’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, the Education Department’s staff — at the urging of political appointees at the department, according to several people familiar with the situation — was told that it faced punishment if it did not alter a standard it used to ensure racial and ethnic diversity among law school student bodies.
The staff report asserted that the law school accreditor’s “ambiguous” diversity standard, which has come under persistent criticism from groups that oppose affirmative action, could be inconsistently applied in ways that would pressure institutions to break the law in states where affirmative action has been banned. The law school accreditor’s written “equal opportunity and diversity standard” (Standard 212, formerly known as 211) requires law schools to “demonstrate by concrete action” their commitment to a diverse student body. ...
But some members of the advisory panel — led by George A. Pruitt, president of Thomas Edison State College, the committee’s longest serving member — objected at the December meeting to the staff’s recommendation on the diversity standard. ...
Recommendations by the accreditation advisory committee, which goes by the acronym NACIQI (nuh-see-kee), are just that — recommendations to the education secretary. The department’s political leaders were reportedly very upset by the turn of events at the December meeting, according to people familiar with the situation. Ten days after the committee met in December, the department’s staff, as is its right, signaled that it would appeal the committee’s recommendation about the ABA council, even though it was upheld except for the language on the diversity standard. A formal appeal was never submitted, though.
Fast forward to this week. In a June 20 letter obtained by Inside Higher Ed, Spellings said that she would uphold the 18-month recognition period. However, she made abundantly clear that she disagreed with the committee’s vote not to accept the staff’s recommendation about the diversity standard. “I note that the council did not directly and persuasively address the staff’s finding that the council failed to comply with ... requirements to maintain effective controls against inconsistent application of Standard 212″ (the diversity standard) “and its interpretations,” Spellings wrote.
She insisted that the accreditor provide a mountain of documents by December, when it again must seek renewed recognition from the department, showing that it has met the department’s requirements for all of its standards, “including (but not limited to)” the diversity standard. The secretary does not appear to have required the law school accreditor to report on application of its diversity standard at many points throughout the 18-month period, as the staff’s original recommendation would have done.
Critics of the ABA’s diversity standard speculated — and an Education Department official confirmed — that the language in the secretary’s letter meant that she was requiring the ABA to prove that it is fulfilling the department’s requirements in carrying out the diversity requirement. “It certainly would seem as if she has restored this as an item on the agenda to which ABA must respond, and I think that’s a positive development,” said Stephen Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars. The scholars’ group had urged the department last year to deny the ABA council’s authority to operate if it did not abandon its new diversity requirement.