Legal Education

For second time, ABA Legal Education Section seeks public comment on diversity accreditation standard

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Diverse panel seated at a table holding up question marks in front of their faces

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Following criticism on proposed changes to a law school diversity standard, additional suggested revisions—and clarifications—will be sent out for notice and comment.

The action was approved Friday by the council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which met in San Francisco.

“Based on the notice and comment process, we went back to the drawing board. All in all, it will make for a better product,” said Leo Martinez, a University of California Hastings College of the Law professor emeritus who chairs the council.

Standard 206, which is at the center of the discourse, addresses diversity, equity and inclusion. It requires that law schools provide full opportunities for students from underrepresented groups in the profession and have diverse faculty and staff in regards to gender, race and ethnicity. An earlier proposed revision, which the council approved in May for notice and comment, suggested adding color, ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, age, disability and military status to the language.

“This does not mean the council is going to be requiring data collection on all of those groups. It means that schools need to think about those groups when creating an equitable and inclusive environment,” council member Carla Pratt, the dean of Washburn University School of Law, said during the meeting.

The more recent proposed changes, detailed in a Nov. 4 standards committee memo, include providing examples of what would be considered “concrete actions” to demonstrate 206 compliance, such as supporting student affinity groups. Also, there are language suggestions to clarify accommodation for private, religiously affiliated law schools in regards to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

Additionally, the suggested revisions include language to make clear that schools in states that prohibit the consideration of race and ethnicity for employment or admissions decisions are not required to do so under the standard.

Academic freedom is addressed as well, and suggested revisions state that the standard would not require law schools to censure or punish the academic discussion of ideas some might find controversial or offensive.

After notice and comment, the proposed revisions go back to the council. If they are approved, they go to the ABA House of Delegates. Under ABA rules, the House gets up to two votes on standards revisions approved by the council before they take effect, but the council has final approval on accreditation matters.

Some media criticism of the earlier proposed revisions was “misleading,” Bill Adams, ABA managing director of accreditation and legal education, wrote in an October statement. He noted that much of the coverage conflated the roles of the council and the ABA as a whole.

“The council solely is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as the national accreditor of law schools and serves as an independent arm of the ABA in executing that function,” he wrote.

Other council business at the Nov. 19 meeting included the approval of a plan that requires bylaw changes in regards to the section’s executive committee. Currently, no accreditation action can be approved between council meetings, and the proposal seeks to give that authority to the executive committee for matters that are time-sensitive. An example given in an Oct. 7 memo was approving or rejecting law school teach-out plans.

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