Sparking heated debate across the country, a recent study claims that affirmative action, a policy designed to help black students gain admission to law school, may actually hurt them in the classroom and later in their careers.

Affirmative action policies in the law school application process actually harms black students because it admits them into harder law schools than ones they are prepared for, University of California at Los Angeles law professor Richard Sander argued in his study, which is slated to appear in the Stanford Law Review this month. Sander said top law schools should lead the way in reforming affirmative action, but officials at Yale Law School said the school does not have formal mechanisms for affirmative action in admissions.

The Law School admits only students it believes are capable of handling the workload, Yale Law School Dean of Admissions Megan Barnett said.

“All of our students are really exceptional,” said Barnett. “We get the most talented students in the country so they all end up very successful after they graduate — so I am not sure [the study] is applicable to Yale.”

Yale Law School spokeswoman Janet Conroy said using race as one of many factors in admissions enriches the educational experience for all students. Diversity adds to the “life and learning” at the Law School, she said.

Clarence Webster III LAW ’05, an officer of the National Black Law Students Association, said he thinks it is too soon to judge the impact of affirmative action policies on black law students.

“We are less than one generation since when it was implemented so it is a little premature to start making judgments on the success of affirmative action,” Webster said.

But Sander said there is a trade-off for beneficiaries of any affirmative action program, noting that his study found that affirmative action had the potential to create a “mismatch” problem in which black students enter law schools under prepared.

In the last week, Sander’s study has triggered national criticism. Among those to respond negatively, Timothy Clydesdale, a sociology professor at the College of New Jersey, said Sander’s report is plagued with logical errors, relies on faulty data and has not yet been subjected to peer review.

“They’re attempting to review something that’s a sophisticated review of social science data that they are just not capable of doing,” said Clydesdale, who is writing a counterstudy to be published in the May issue of the Stanford Law Review.

But Sander said he believes his results are reliable and, although affirmative action is a sensitive subject for many, it needs to be addressed. Law schools across the country have not been comfortable or candid in speaking about affirmative action, Sander said.

Administrators at several law schools said they do not agree with Sander’s findings and believe affirmative action programs are important.

“Affirmative action has a number of virtues,” University of Michigan Law School Dean of Admissions Evan Caminker said. “There are virtues in making sure people who graduate from elite academic institutions and are trained to be leaders of society — represent what the community is like that they will be living and working in.”

Caminker said he thinks Sander’s report is provocative and that it is not possible to reach any decisive conclusions until experts examine it further.

Sander’s survey also claims that affirmative action in law school admission processes may cause black students at elite law schools to struggle with state bar exams, thus making it harder for them to find post-graduation employment akin to their classmates.

But Webster said he has not seen this problem at Yale or other top law schools and said all students have difficulty obtaining jobs, not only black students.

“Job problems are more reflective of our economy,” Webster said. “All law school students are having trouble.”

Sander said he is working on similar studies addressing ways affirmative action affects Hispanic and Asian law students.