Numbers bind

Review & Outlook

By the editors

The Wall Street Journal, September 3, 1998

You’d think that any law school would welcome a student with a Horatio Alger story like Katuria Smith’s. The young Seattle woman was born poor, raised by a single parent and after high school worked in janitorial and construction jobs. She went to night classes and eventually graduated cum laude from the University of Washington. But when she applied to its law school in 1994, she was rejected, even though her admission test scores were in the 95th percentile.

Ms. Smith thinks she knows what happened: She checked a box on her application form marked “white.” When Katuria was rejected in 1994, the law school had completed a diversity program that had increased minority enrollment to 43% from the 1989 level of 17%. “I felt I was exactly the kind of person they would want,” she told the Seattle Times. “Most kids in my hometown expected me to end up in jail.” Now, with the help of the Center for Individual Rights, she has filed suit charging that the school’s action violates equal protection of the laws. And her case is at the center of a debate over a Washington state ballot initiative that would end quotas in government hiring and universities.

This April, the law school that rejected Ms. Smith invited Nat Hentoff, the noted columnist for the Village Voice, to speak on campus. Mr. Hentoff was there to lecture on the nearby Wenatchee child-abuse trial, but he had also developed a keen interest in Katuria Smith’s case. At a faculty lunch before his lecture, he noted that Katuria was not required to check the “white” racial box on her application and that she had an unusual first name; Mr. Hentoff said she could have been a black applicant. Mr. Hentoff then asked Roland Hjorth, the law school’s dean: “With Katuria’s high scores, and also the proof of her determination to overcome poverty, would she have been accepted if the admissions committee had believed her to be black?” Mr. Hentoff says the dean nodded and said in a low voice, “Yes.” Mr. Hentoff then asked, “Is this your definition of equal protection of the laws?” He was told the school was under a gag order and no one could say anything more about the case.

Mr. Hentoff wrote columns describing this incident in the Village Voice and the Washington Post. The Hentoff columns were noticed by John Carlson, chairman of Initiative 200, which is modeled after Ward Connerly’s successful anti-quota initiative in California. Without mentioning Dean Hjorth by name, Mr. Carlson included a brief mention of the Hentoff incident in his argument in the statewide voter’s guide and concluded: “It’s time for government to get out of the discrimination business.”

Dean Hjorth, who had previously disputed Mr. Hentoff’s account, moved to strike it from the voter’s guide. He told us it would have been “reckless” for him to discuss the case, and that publication of his comment would be defamatory. He has no plans to sue Mr. Hentoff, and says his account may stem from the fact that Mr. Hentoff “is a dedicated opponent of affirmative action.”

Mr. Carlson has refused to alter his ballot argument, so Mr. Hjorth plans to seek a court order blocking its use. He has collected affidavits from 13 professors present at the lunch who either don’t recall or don’t believe Dean Hjorth agreed that Ms. Smith would have been admitted if the school thought she were black.

But the record may create a problem for the school. Last January, as part of the Katuria Smith lawsuit, the University of Washington admitted in court papers that “in 1994 no resident applicant identified or treated as an African American with an index score equal to or above that of Katuria Smith’s was denied an offer of admission to the University of Washington law school.” Mr. Carlson believes this “clearly says she would have been admitted if they’d thought she was black.”

Mr. Hentoff says he is “absolutely sure” the conversation occurred, but he sympathizes with the “terrible bind” Dean Hjorth and his fellow professors are in.

Whatever the good intentions, it is a very odd policy. It seems to work only so long as no one brings it into the clear light of day. It’s an unusual thing to teach at a law school.