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Elizabeth Warren Controversy: How Do Law Schools Make Hiring Decisions Anyway?

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren has had a rough couple of weeks on the campaign trail as questions continue to swirl about why she listed herself as a minority in law school directories  in the 1980s and ’90s.

Warren,62, has maintained that she identified herself as a minority to meet other people like  herself. Warren is one-thirty-second Native American, genealogists said. Republicans have accused Warren of using this minority status to receive special treatment in hiring.

But controversy around Warren has  raised another question: What exactly does go  into law school faculty hiring decisions?

Law schools have changed drastically from the 1970s and ’80s, when Warren was beginning her career. The field  is now much more constrained, but during the early days of Warren’s career, law schools were frequently looking to find rising stars.

“Schools were typically searching both broadly for people that they were predicting would be excellent scholars and teachers,” said Susan Westerberg Prager, CEO and executive director of the Association of American Law Schools. “They were also searching in whatever specific subject matter areas they had needs in.”

Prager, a former dean of UCLA law school, and one of the first female law school deans in the country, said schools were also looking to hire more women.

“Until changes began in the ’70s, to say the field was dominantly male doesn’t even make it apparent at how dominantly it was male,” Prager said.

Prager, who said she was a registered independent, acknowledged that racial diversity had also traditionally been an important law school hiring consideration.

“A number of schools, beginning in the late ’60s, became concerned about diversifying their faculty, both with respect to gender and race,” she said, but the hiring criteria differed from school to school.

Those familiar with law school hiring said that in general, entry level hiring decisions were likely to be based more on the candidate’s  academic background, whereas later on, particularly when it came to tenured positions,  the body of work was most important.

“By then you see a body of work where you’re acknowledged by peers in the field,” Prager said.

“Every school that aspires to be more and more recognized …  that’s a very big factor. The entry level hiring-people are making predictions about how will this person pan out? But they have the years to tenure to decide whether they’re developing well, and evaluating teaching and scholarship.”

Warren graduated from Rutgers School of Law- Newark in 1976. While at Rutgers, she served as editor of the law review.  Prager said  that she did not know Warren, but that she had heard through colleagues over the years  that Warren was a star in her field.

“My predecessor at UCLA, I can remember him talking about Warren, telling me about what a star she was,” Prager said. “This is long before this would have crept into any popular acknowledgement. She was well established from a young age.”

Warren was listed as a minority in AALS directories from 1986-1995. Prager said that the means of collecting data had changed over the years, and different schools had handled data collecting differently, making it difficult to determine when and where Warren might have checked herself as minority.

“AALS collects information for the directory from deans of AALS member schools and from faculty, and, as you can imagine, how the organization has collected this information has changed over the years,” Prager said.

“The hiring picture is often highly influenced by what people need to staff in their programs and the accomplishments of the people they’re looking at,” she said. “The quality of teaching and research are the dominant factors in these decisions.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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