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Why U.S. News & World Report Failed Diversity 101: Vivia Chen

April 2, 2021, 3:00 PM

This is not the most politic thing to say but here I go: We should stop putting old White men in charge of decisions about diversity.

I know that’s a comment that will raise eyebrows but that was my gut reaction when I heard about U.S. News & World Report’s embarrassing foray into law school diversity. That august publication just came out with its latest law school rankings, and this year’s birth was a bit of a disaster. And yes, the chieftain behind the enterprise happens to be an older White guy.

But before you get all hot and bothered, let me say this: Of course, I know White men of all vintages who are enlightened about race issues. God knows we need their support. The effort at U.S. News also started off with good intentions. For the first time, U.S. News decided to launch a diversity scorecard based on racial and ethnic data provided by the nation’s law schools.

Then, it went off the rails. For unexplained reasons, it dropped both Asian and multiracial students from its diversity count. Law schools protested, and U.S. News recategorized Asian students as diverse. However, it continued to omit multiracial students, prompting 162 law school deans to pen a letter dated March 24 to U.S. News in protest.

In the letter, the law school deans called the omission of multiracial students “wrong and unacceptable,” adding, “these students consider themselves, and are considered by others, to be racially diverse, and they are underrepresented in the legal profession,” reports Law.com’s Karen Sloan. The letter also reminded U.S. News that it had changed course on Asian students, urging it to do the same with multiracial students. The upshot is that its law school diversity ranking is now on hold.

Good grief. Does anyone at U.S. News, which commands a fearsome empire that decides the prestige of higher education institutions worldwide, need this memo that multiracial people and Asians aren’t White? And what unfortunate timing. As Law.com notes, U.S. News initially released the embargoed rankings that excluded Asians from its diversity count on the day that six Asian women were shot to death in Atlanta. It’s as if it needed that jolt to be reminded that Asians are minorities.

It’s a grand mess. And the one in charge is Robert Morse, the chief data strategist for U.S. News, to whom the letter by the 162 law school deans was directed. A 45-year veteran of U.S. News, he’s the guru of academic rankings, responsible for churning out its famous Best Colleges and Best Graduate Schools editions. He appears to be a legend at U.S. News and an icon in the field of academic rankings.

So what does Morse have to say about this fiasco? I asked Morse to comment and he replied in an email: “After receiving feedback, we decided to delay the law diversity ranking so we can devote more time to ensuring it accurately reflects the data of underrepresented minorities, including students of two or more races. We will publish it at a later, as yet undetermined date.”

I pressed further. Why were Asians and multiracial students excluded from the diversity calculus in the first place? He answered: “We do not share our internal editorial deliberations and decision-making, but we can share that we received feedback that will help shape our rankings.”

I am not here to make Morse the villain of the show. I don’t know if he personally pushed to exclude Asians and multiracial students for some reason or if the decision was made by committee. He seems sincere in wanting to get it right. And I give him credit for not dodging responsibility or my questions.

Still, as an Asian woman and former lawyer, I want to ask him, what the hell were you thinking? The whole episode underscores how even sophisticated people in the “woke” world of mainstream media can fail spectacularly to grasp the fundamentals of what it means to be a minority and how hurtful it is not to be acknowledged as such.

“To me, this is symptomatic of people who don’t think about race very often,” says Sarah Zearfoss, admissions director at University of Michigan Law School about the U.S. News diversity venture. “It shows we’re still at the kindergarten level on race when we should be at least on the college level.”

To Zearfoss, the U.S. News’ mishandling of diversity strikes home. “It was very poignant to me because my husband is Japanese American and my kids are mixed. I had a friend [in academia] say to me, your kids are Asian and White so they have too much advantage.” She adds, “the race discussion gets very muddled.”

Muddled indeed.

To contact the reporter on this story: Vivia Chen in New York at vchen@bloombergindustry.com

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