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Seton Hall University School of Law is the focus of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for allegedly discriminating against white law students, according to officials at the school and the department. The probe, by the department’s Office for Civil Rights, is looking at two Seton Hall programs: a minority mentoring effort called “Partners in Excellence” and a minority job fair held last July in conjunction with a push by several New Jersey law firms seeking to increase diversity in their ranks. The job fair and the mentoring program focus only on minorities. The job fair — sponsored by a committee called the New Jersey Law Firm Group — is a particular target because Seton Hall told students they were only eligible to attend the fair if they weren’t white. “Students must be eligible to participate, i.e., they must be students of color,” Seton Hall’s Web site stated at the time. The site also emphasized that the fair was “to ensure that additional opportunities were created for students of color” (emphasis in the original). The annual job fair is held alternately at Seton Hall and Rutgers School of Law, raising the prospect that the probe could expand to both the state’s law schools. Seton Hall Law School Dean Patrick Hobbs says his faculty reacted with surprise and disappointment at the Department of Education’s action, which started shortly after the job fair was first advertised. The two programs do not discriminate against whites because they are only a small part of the school’s overall career offerings, Hobbs says, and should not be viewed in isolation. The probe has placed Hobbs in the awkward position of attempting to support and distance himself from the programs at the same time. “We’re more a host than a sponsor. The law firm group itself is the motivating group,” Hobbs says of the job fair. He adds, “It’s almost exhausting sometimes why people complain about these things because it’s not enough … you would hope more people would applaud it.” AN INCIDENTAL COMPLAINANT Part of Hobbs’ frustration comes from the tangential standing of the unidentified complainant, who has not applied to Seton Hall and has not been affected by the fair or the mentoring effort. A handwritten addendum to the complaint states, “Please note that I have not personally been discriminated against and am filing this complaint in my capacity as a citizen.” Nonetheless, the letter alerting the department to Seton Hall’s career services states, “I demand that this job fair be open to Whites, that the language on all advertising be changed to reflect that, that mail notice be sent to all White students potentially affected by this, and that all White students be given the opportunity to reply.” The letter also demands that the Partners in Excellence program be investigated and opened to white students. A spokesman for the department’s Office for Civil Rights said the investigation was ongoing, but declined to comment further. All that is known is that the complainant is male, lives in New York, “is not representing a law student” and “is not associated with the University at all,” according to the department’s case file, No. 02-03-2059. In fact, the complainant’s only contact with Seton Hall appears to be from an account of the law school’s efforts to promote minority hiring at state firms in the Law Journal of Nov. 18, 2002. The Dec. 30, 2003, edition of the Wall Street Journal, which disclosed the investigation, reported a rash of complaints from the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think-tank in Sterling, Va., which has filed similar actions against Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and Washington University in St. Louis. The University of Hawaii is also being investigated by the education department, according to the Wall Street Journal. Seton Hall has retained Washington, D.C.-based Hogan & Hartson partner Alexander Dreier to represent the school in the investigation. Dreier did not return a call at press time. The investigation has proceeded at a fairly relaxed pace, according to Hobbs. “They asked a number of questions with regard to both programs. We asked for a little bit of an extension because [of staff turnover] and they were very accommodating. This is not in any way an aggressive inquiry,” Hobbs says. “We expect in the next couple of weeks to learn a little bit more of their reaction.” Law firms and attorneys involved in the Law Firm Group and Partners in Excellence kept a low profile on the issue last week. The six firms involved with Partners in Excellence declined to comment or did not respond to messages inquiring about the investigation. They are: Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione, McCarter & English, and Sills Cummis Epstein & Gross, all in Newark; McElroy, Deutsch & Mulvaney and Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti, both of Morristown; and Wilentz Goldman & Spitzer of Woodbridge. One of the mentors, Gerard DeVeaux, of counsel to McElroy Deutsch, reacted with surprise — “gosh!” — on hearing of the investigation, but declined to comment. The outgoing chairman of the Law Firm Group, Deputy Attorney General James Flanagan III, did not return a call for comment. Another organizer with the group, Karen Heiss Eisen, director of recruitment and professional development at Budd Larner in Short Hills, declined to comment. At Rutgers, which will host the Law Firm Group’s next job fair if it survives the probe, Dean Stuart Deutsch says the investigation “is news to me.” Like Hobbs, Deutsch staunchly defends efforts to improve minority recruitment. “We’re very proud of the role we’ve played in providing opportunities to people, minorities, women and disadvantaged whites who historically at various times have been excluded from the legal profession.” Deutsch notes that any law school is likely to attract complaints of one kind or another. “Complaints vary from legitimate to totally illegitimate,” he said. “I’m sure that there are hundreds of complaints that are filed every year around the country against other institutions.” The probe follows two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that addressed affirmative action programs at law schools, Grutter v. Bollinger, No. 02-241, 2003 U.S. LEXIS 4800, and Gratz v. Bollinger, No. 02-516, 2003 U.S. LEXIS 4801. The joint rulings declared “a university may consider race or ethnicity only as a ‘plus in a particular applicant’s file.’” Demographic statistics on law firm hiring in New Jersey make dismal reading. In the Law Journal‘s 2003 survey of minorities in 20 largest firms in the state, only 1.7 percent of partners were nonwhites. That number was up from 1 percent in the Law Journal‘s 2001 survey. “It’s the same story every year,” Hobbs says. “They want more students of color with stellar academic backgrounds and Seton Hall wants that too, so we came up with something I regard as unique — I don’t know of any other program like it in the country.”

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