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New Study Documents Positive Impact of Diversity on Legal Education

Learning alongside students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds significantly enhances the educational experiences of law students. This is the conclusion reached by authors of a study recently released by The Civil Rights Project of Harvard University. Results from a survey of law students at both Harvard University and the University of Michigan show that white students, in particular, are enriched through interactions with other races and ethnic groups.

The report, Diversity and Legal Education: Student Experiences in Leading Law Schools, reviews the impact of diversity on the educational experiences of 1,820 law students at Harvard and Michigan. Authored by Gary Orfield, Professor of Education and Social Policy at Harvard University, and Dean Whitla, Lecturer on Education and Director of the Counseling and Psychology program at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, the report includes findings from a survey conducted by Gallup Poll and results from smaller surveys at five other prominent law schools.

The study finds that 89% of Harvard Law School students and 91% of Michigan Law School students report a "positive" or "strongly positive" impact of diversity on their total educational experience. Nearly two-thirds of students surveyed report that diversity improved class discussions. Sixty-two percent of respondents report that diversity clearly or moderately enhanced their ability to work more effectively and/or get along better with others.

By a ratio of more than ten to one, students who were enrolled in both racially homogeneous and racially diverse classes viewed racially mixed classes as superior. One student cited in the study remarked, "I can't imagine how serious discussions of law, which affects all Americans, can take place without the points of view of all different races."

Higher Education's Role in Fostering Intergroup Contact

This study also confirmed other research that suggests that undergraduate and graduate school environments can be the most racially mixed environments students--especially white students--have ever encountered. As the report notes, "among students at these two elite law schools about a fourth of Harvard students and a fifth of Michigan students had frequent contact with students of other racial and ethnic backgrounds when growing up and two in five had little or no contact. The statistics for high school experience were very similar."

This study also affirms that "among U.S. law students in the survey whites were the least likely to report frequent interracial contact while growing up or in high school, while blacks were most likely to have had such experiences. Thirteen percent of whites reported no interracial contact while growing up and another 37% reported very little....Sixty-three percent of African American students reported they had often had such contact, compared to only 12% of whites....In other words, almost no blacks and Latinos who succeeded in enrolling in these elite law schools came from a highly segregated childhood and education, but almost half of the whites did."

Changing Student Demographics, Changing Students' Views

Diversity in law school classrooms also seems to be having a direct impact on students' views on key policy issues. Seven out of eight students reported that contact with students of diverse backgrounds led them to change their views on civil rights. An overwhelming majority of students at both schools (78% at Harvard and 85% at Michigan) reported that discussions with students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds changed their views of "conditions in various social and economic institutions."

One student explained that "Being confronted with opinions from different socio-economic and ethnic realms forces you to develop logical bases for the opinions you have and to discard those not based on such logic. You simply are forced to think more critically about your opinions when you know that people with differing opinions are going to ask you to explain yourself."

Another student commented, "the lawyers that we make today are going to make the laws we live under tomorrow. If we expect those laws to reflect the vast diversity that is America, our law schools must possess that diversity within their walls today."

Toward this end, this study also confirms that today's law students support affirmative action in order to foster more diversity among law school students. Eighty percent of students at both Harvard and Michigan favor strengthening or maintaining the existing admissions policies aimed at increasing enrollment of students of color.

As affirmative action is debated in legislatures and court rooms across the country, students in surveys like this one are strongly voicing their view that educational quality depends on higher education's continuing efforts to diversify student bodies. As Christopher Edley, Jr., Co-Director, The Civil Rights Project puts it, "Inclusive experiences prepare students to build or lead inclusive institutions and communities later on."

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