Arkansas law school Dean worried about ‘harm’ from professor’s FOIA suit

Without waiting for the courts to rule in a pending FOIA lawsuit from a professor seeking access to admissions data, a law school dean recently sent a cryptic email to the school’s attorneys warning of potential reputational harm from the professor’s “inaccurate” statements.

Prof. Robert Steinbuch filed suit against the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s (UA) Bowen School of Law in November, alleging that the administration had refused to provide him with data sets he had requested for his research into the effects of race-based admissions policies, despite having turned the same data over on two previous occasions.

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

In December, Steinbuch wrote an op-ed about the case in National Jurist, a trade publication, outlining his case, arguing that when he first requested the admissions data in 2012, the Arkansas Attorney General “issued an opinion confirming my right to receive the public records I sought,” but that the very dean who approved the original request, Michael Schwartz, is now refusing to release the exact same data on the grounds that it would violate student privacy.

Steinbuch, however, believes that the administration’s reluctance to share the data with him is actually based on fears that his research will reveal that lower admissions standards for minority applicants have caused those students to drop out of school and fail the bar examination at higher rates than other students.

“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 told Campus Reform.

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

On the day that the op-ed was published, Schwartz sent an email to the attorneys representing the law school in the FOIA case, a copy of which Steinbuch provided to Campus Reform.

After providing a link to Steinbuch’s op-ed, Schwartz wrote, “I am very concerned about the harm caused to the law school, our students, and our alums by the inaccurate info being put out there.”

Yet The Arkansas Project, an outlet that covers local government and politics in the state, asserted in a recent op-ed that it was unable to find anything “inaccurate” in Steinbuch’s piece, saying all the facts he mentioned could be verified by “a simple Google search,” and noting that Schwartz had failed to offer a single example supporting his claim, either in his original email or when contacted for comment.

Steinbuch made much the same argument to Campus Reform, denouncing “this blanket claim of inaccuracy without a scintilla of evidence of that claim,” and adding, “you would think that if the article contains inaccuracies that so concerned him that he notified his attorneys, he would include at least one example.”

Steinbuch also remarked that he finds it “interesting that the email was sent to the attorneys,” because “it raises the question of what they’re looking to do,” though he declined to speculate on what the ultimate purpose might be.

Campus Reform asked Dean Schwartz in an email to elaborate on his claims, and on his intent in communicating them to the school’s attorneys, but did not receive a response by press time.

A similar accusation leveled against Steinbuch in the Bowen Alumni Newsletter, however, seems to offer some insight into why the law school is so vexed by Steinbuch’s writings.

“We write to express our disappointment that disputes within the law school are playing out in the press,” writes Andy Taylor, president of the Alumni Association Board, on behalf of the entire Association. “We are especially troubled by allegations that the law school applies lower admission standards to ‘cherry pick’ minority students. We know and evidence supports that each and every student admitted by the admissions committee is qualified to be a student at Bowen.”

Steinbuch called that claim “demonstrably false” in an email to the Alumni Association, pointing out that “Bowen has dismissed students for academic failure, while others who have graduated have been unable to pass the bar exam.”

The newsletter statement then goes on to criticize Steinbuch, albeit not by name, declaring, “Any statement by a faculty member implying that a particular group of students is less qualified than another is deeply troubling, especially given the timing (right before finals).”

The concern regarding finals refers to an investigation of Steinbuch that has since been aborted, but which features in his lawsuit as an example of the retaliation he claims to have faced from the school.

Steinbuch 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, and that such 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.”

The letter led to a formal investigation, though the charges were eventually dropped just days before a hearing on Steinbuch’s request for a restraining order to halt the inquest.

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

In his email to the Alumni Association, Steinbuch explains that his research, as outlined in a recent article in the Texas Review of Law and Politics, is not concerned with the inherent abilities of minority students, but rather with documenting the effects of enrolling students with lower GPA’s and test scores than are traditionally required.

“We literally had claims that I am biased based on my lawsuit, so because I filed a lawsuit, I’m now subject to claims of bias. That’s not the right standard in academic discourse, or anywhere else as far as I’m concerned,” Steinbuch told Campus Reform. “Legitimate inquiry should be encouraged, not punished, so even if these people disagree with my conclusions, that doesn’t mean they are inaccurate.”

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