Law school sets narrow definition for diversity

By Robyn Blumner

St. Petersburg Times, September 6, 1998

The dean of the University of Washington Law School in Seattle, Roland Hjorth, doesn’t want to own up to his school’s apartheid admissions standards in court or in public. But the truth is as plain as the numbers.

A class-action lawsuit filed by Katuria Smith, and sponsored by the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, D.C., alleges that the University of Washington maintains different admissions standards for white and black students, requiring lesser grades and standardized test scores for minority applicants. Hjorth and the school deny they maintain a quota, saying instead that race is merely used as a “plus factor” in admissions decisions, considered as part of an applicant’s “background and life experiences” that may add diversity to the student body.

But it’s clear from answers the school has been forced to give in the lawsuit that the term diversity is shorthand for minority. And that rather than a mere “plus factor,” the color of the applicant is given substantial weight in the admissions process, often outweighing their grades and test scores.

Smith had an excellent academic record, having attained cum laude honors from the University of Washington School of Business Administration. Her Law School Admission Test score ranked her in the 94th percentile of all test-takers.

She was a resident of the state and had suffered severe economic hardship throughout her life, growing up in a poor family with a divorced mother trying to support four children. Katuria had worked after high school in construction and as a janitor. Then, she attended community college classes at night to become a paralegal, and worked full time during the day.

Despite these credentials, the diversity of her background and the hardships she had overcome to get an education, Smith, who had checked “white” on the part of the application that requests racial and ethnic identification, was rejected from the University of Washington Law School in 1994. Instead she attended the University of Seattle Law School, a less prestigious school with a much higher tuition.

The University of Washington denies that Smith’s color doomed her application.

However, in court papers, the dean and the school were forced to answer the question of whether any black students with the same or better grades and test scores as Smith’s were similarly denied admission in 1994. Hjorth and law school admitted that none was.

Under oath in his legal papers, the dean admits that black students with Smith’s credentials are routinely admitted to the school. Yet publicly he runs from this truth.

Hjorth has currently picked a very public fight with award-winning syndicated columnist Nat Hentoff over what he said and didn’t say on this issue at a faculty forum. Hentoff, a vigorous supporter of civil rights and liberties throughout his 54 years in professional journalism, has repeatedly raised concerns over the unfairness of affirmative action quotas that exalt skin color over achievement.

At a law school faculty luncheon in April, Hentoff posed a hypothetical question, asking whether an applicant with Smith’s credentials and background, whom the admissions committee believed to be black, would be admitted. According to Hentoff, the dean nodded his head affirmatively and softly said “yes.” Other professors in the room also nodded their heads in the affirmative.

Now they disavow it.

The dean is vigorously denying that he answered “yes,” and to prove it his assistant dean for public relations Paula Littlewood sent me a 32-page fax filled with his yes-denials and the affidavits of 13 law faculty in the room who also deny (or don’t recall) they heard the dean’s “yes.” (The dean refused to talk with me.)

However, what is missing in those 32 pages is Hjorth’s “no.” To the question of whether someone with Smith’s credentials would have been admitted had she been black, Hjorth may or may not have said “yes” (although, for the record, I believe Hentoff’s account; he’s a colleague whose work I greatly respect), but we know for sure he never said “no.” And by not instantly insisting that a black applicant would have received the same rejection, Hjorth answers the hypothetical with his silence. As loudly as if he vocalized it, Hjorth’s answer is “yes.”

It’s apparent the law school would have admitted Smith had she been black. After the former dean, Wallace Loh, arrived in 1990 with an explicit commitment to increasing minority enrollment, the student body went from 17.5 percent to 43.3 percent minority in 1994. How did they get there? Most likely the same way California’s and Texas’ state law schools had, by holding minority applicants to lesser academic standards. It’s interesting that Hjorth and the school won’t simply acknowledge the truth. If they are so proud of their diverse student body, then why aren’t they proud of what they had to do to get there?

Hjorth is particularly steamed because Hentoff’s account of his statement has made its way into a voter pamphlet published by the state. The state of Washington gives each side on all ballot initiatives room to make their case. Proponents of a Proposition 209-type anti-affirmative action measure on the ballot in November have used the space to repeat Hentoff’s question and Hjorth’s answer. Hjorth calls it defamatory and has repeatedly petitioned the state to remove the reference. But it’s not defamation if it’s true. And the fact that Smith would have been welcomed into the law school with open arms had she been black is a truth that Hjorth can’t run from. The real question is, why is he trying?