Arkansas law prof: court wants me to pay for school’s mistakes

A law professor at the University of Arkansas believes he was exonerated by an investigation into alleged racial bias because the school wished to avoid judicial rebuke over the “inquisition.”

Dr. Robert Steinbuch, a professor at the university’s Bowen School of Law, filed a lawsuit against administrators in November alleging that they had violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by redacting information on race, LSAT scores, and undergraduate GPA in data sets he had requested for his research into the impact of lowering admissions standards on student success.

[RELATED: Univ. of Arkansas prevents prof from studying race-based admissions data]

Although law school dean Michael Schwartz had provided the complete data to Steinbuch on two previous occasions, in 2012 and 2013, he asserted in response to the latest request that providing the redacted information would violate federal privacy laws because Steinbuch might be able to deduce students’ identities from it.

Steinbuch challenged Schwartz, pointing out that such concerns had not arisen in the past, compelling Schwartz to assert in court that the school had violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act when it provided the unredacted data in 2013.

Shortly after the original complaint was filed, Steinbuch amended it to include allegations that several colleagues had retaliated against him for the lawsuit.

First, he claims that Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Theresa Beiner had interviewed at least one minority student in his class, and probably several, to ask whether Steinbuch had made them feel uncomfortable by discussing his research in class. Steinbuch claims Beiner’s conversations undermined his credibility with students by “insinuating that something improper or untoward is behind [Steinbuch’s] research.” Beiner told Campus Reform that she denies the charge but could not provide additional detail.

Subsequently, Steinbuch asserts that two of his colleagues wrote to Schwartz asking that his grading abilities be suspended because “students of color have read the complaint and are very distressed” about his “perceived or alleged bias.”

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

The letter led to a formal investigation, which the school claimed was unrelated to the underlying lawsuit and concerned solely with complaints of racial bias and grading-policy violations. Steinbuch disputed that description, and sought a temporary restraining order to halt the investigation.

A hearing was held Monday to rule on the restraining order, but The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports that Judge Tim Fox had no choice but to deny the request since the investigation had been concluded the previous Friday.

“At 4:30 on Friday afternoon, when government offices were closed for a snowstorm, I got an email from the Provost clearing me of all these ‘race-police’ claims against me,” Steinbuch confirmed in a conversation with Campus Reform.

“I think it is no coincidence that the school cleared me of wrongdoing on the literal eve of the hearing,” he added, speculating that “they recognized that they were not going to do well in court while they were conducting their inquisition.”

The university has argued that the investigation of Steinbuch was not related to his FOIA lawsuit, but rather was based solely on statements he had made to the press concerning his research, which some feared would undermine the self-esteem of students of color in his classes. Steinbuch, however, points out that the only statements he has made to the press about his research have concerned the data he was provided in 2012 and 2013, which does not contain any information on current students.

“The discussions I’ve had will all press outlets about student performance relates only to the data that I’ve received pursuant to the FOIA from the law school, which by definition only includes graduates,” he explained. “I’ve never discussed any data or made any conclusions for current students, because I don’t have access to that data.”

Judge Fox did throw an unexpected wrench into the proceedings, though, ruling that the school’s claim to have violated students’ privacy rights with the 2013 disclosure requires that those students be provided with legal representation and participate in the proceedings.

“You all have folks ... who have rights that need to be adjudicated, and they need to be here,” Fox told lawyers for both sides. He also added, however, that “I'm not sure Bowen can be relied on to represent the affected parties” because the school had already disregarded their rights once, and ordered Steinbuch to pick up the tab for the students’ legal costs.

“We’re going to appeal that issue, and that will probably take almost a year,” Steinbuch told Campus Reform. “This case will now be litigated at the appellate level for about a year, and then we’ll come back to the trial court to address the underlying FOIA issue.”

While he admits that “the delay is a negative,” Steinbuch said he considers Monday’s hearing a victory overall, particularly to the extent that it led to “a more rapid and accurate resolution of the false claims against me,” but also because litigating the matter of attorney fees will provide a useful legal precedent.

“We clearly disagree with the judge’s conclusion that plaintiffs should pay for the mistakes of the defendant,” he explained, but opined that, “in the end, I think it would be a worthwhile exercise to have the issue resolved so it becomes clear that government agencies cannot shift their costs onto individual FOIA plaintiffs.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @FrickePete