The underlying premise of the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedent in Grutter v. Bollinger — which upheld the limited use of affirmative action in college admissions — is that students benefit from being in a racially diverse educational environment.

But there hasn’t exactly been a wealth of social science research to support this theory, as retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor lamented in a 2010 essay. As the justices prepare to take up affirmative action again, research has emerged that might help fill that gap.

A study titled “Does Race Matter in Educational Diversity? A Legal and Empirical Analysis,” concludes that law students actually do benefit from racial diversity on campus and that law schools should work to maintain diverse classes.

University of North Carolina School of Law professor Charles Daye conducted the research with UNC psychology professor A.T. Panter; University of California, Los Angeles sociology professor Walter Allen; and University of North Carolina at Greensboro professor emeritus Linda Wightman.

“Diversity matters in the way students conduct conversations in class, how they interpret cases, in the way they interact in social settings and with their professors,” Daye said. “The students told us that they learn from each other: white students from black students and black students from white students.”

Factoring race into college admissions has been controversial since at least 1978, when the Supreme Court voted narrowly in Regents v. Bakke to permit schools to consider race but not to use racial quotas in admissions. The court was similarly closely divided in sustaining affirmative action in Grutter and a companion case. A very different panel of justices — lacking O’Connor, now retired, and Justice Elena Kagan, who recused — will hear arguments this fall in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which challenges the university’s use of affirmative action in admissions.

“This is a very important question,” Daye said. “We’re in a global world where lawyers will interact with a wide array of people, and judges will need to understand the perspectives of people of other races.”

The findings are based on data collected from law schools over a decade. The team surveyed about 6,500 incoming students at 50 law schools about their own backgrounds, expectations and experiences. They also conducted periodic focus groups with about 200 students throughout their three years in law school.

The research was funded in part by the Law School Admission Council, and the study is slated for publication in a future edition of the Rutgers Race & and the Law Review.

The researchers set out to answer two basic questions: Does race make a difference to what students bring to law school? If so, are any differences reflected in the quality of education students receive?

The data show, resoundingly, that students of different races do come to law school with differences in experience and perception, Daye said. Perhaps more important, those differences translated into a richer educational experience overall, according to the surveyed students.

Many students reported that they left law school with a deeper understanding of the law as a result of diversity among their classmates, Daye said.

Those findings supported the researchers’ initial hypothesis, he continued. But an unexpected finding was that graduates of law schools that have lot of racial diversity perceived their schools to be more open and respectful of diverse ideas.

Daye said he hopes the findings will influence admissions officials to continue to consider race as at least a small part of the review process and will help inform the courts struggling with affirmative action challenges.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.