American Bar Association / ABA, Law School Deans, Law Schools, Minority Issues, Racism

Can A Law School Force You To Be Racially Sensitive?

Is it right for a law school to send its students to tolerance camp? Mandatory tolerance camp? Mandatory tolerance camp, where unexcused absences will result in an intolerant notation placed in students’ permanent records?

When I came across the story of a state law school holding a “mandatory” diversity seminar that students were required to attend, my first instinct was to side with the students who objected to the required nature of the program. Generally, I’m not a fan of forcing people to be nice to each other, and you can’t force a man to change what’s in his heart. If students want to be racist or prejudiced to others in their community, that’s something that may demand an institutional response. But if some kids don’t think they’ll benefit much from “diversity training,” whatever that means, so be it.

But when the ABA’s committee on accreditation is telling law school administrators that the student body needs to work on its racial sensitivity, well, you can see how the law school is in a bit of a bind…

The situation at the University of Idaho’s College of Law is tough. In late January the school announced that students would be required to attend a diversity program. How would attendance be required?

Oh noes! Not that permanent record!

I thought people stopped keeping permanent records after high school, but to the extent they still exist, it seems a bit harsh to put a special memo in the truant student’s file, a memo that essentially says, “This kid didn’t want to learn about respecting other cultures, so if ten years from now he commits a hate crime against the vaguely foreign-looking cleaning lady, don’t say we didn’t warn you.” Seriously guys, you can’t scare people into being tolerant of others.

A number of students made this point to Idaho Law Dean Donald Burnett, in an open letter (reprinted in full on the next page):

The students are absolutely right. Placing a note of this nature in their files does make them look “unprofessional [or] bigoted.” It sends the totally wrong message.

Unless, well, the students are unprofessional or bigoted. Which they might be. At least that seems to be the impression that the ABA committee on accreditation apparently came away with after auditing Idaho Law as part of its regular review process.

We asked Dean Burnett about the students’ letter. He told us that Idaho Law’s diversity plan was adopted unanimously by the faculty in early January. That plan was finalized after the ABA and the AALS made a little visit to the only accredited law school in the state. From Dean Burnett’s statement to Above the Law (also reprinted in full on the subsequent page):

In October, 2011, a joint team from the ABA and AALS visited the UI College of Law as part of a review process that occurs every seven years. The team included lawyers as well as academics; three of its members were or had been law school deans. Several of them had conducted site review visits at up to ten or more law schools. During a four-day visit to Moscow and Boise, they had many scheduled and casual interactions with students, staff, and faculty. During their exit briefings with College and University administrators, the team referred to these interactions and stated emphatically that the College of Law should focus additional attention upon professionalism and diversity.

Dude, I’m no expert, but the fact that an ABA / AALS accreditation team “stated emphatically that the College of Law should focus additional attention upon professionalism and diversity” does not sound good.

Idaho Law students, what the heck did you say to the ABA and AALS auditors? Dear God. Coming online and saying all sorts of nasty things to me or any other black person that graces these pages is one thing; I’m not going to tell on you or anything. But you do realize that such behavior is frowned upon in public, right? You know you can’t just walk around screaming “AA admit” to every law student of color you meet in real life, don’t you?

In response to these concerns, Idaho Law is bringing in Dean Blake Morant of Wake Forest University to conduct diversity sessions with the students. Yes, yes, we are all happy to know Idaho has black friends.

And the “note” in the student’s file if they miss the session seems to be little more than that. From the statement Dean Burnett provided to ATL:

In order to assure that all voices and viewpoints are represented, the law faculty voted unanimously to make the professionalism and diversity dialogues mandatory for students, staff, and faculty alike. Student participants will receive a certificate that can be noted on their resumes. Students who have serious, irreconcilable scheduling conflicts – such as family issues or inflexible employment obligations — will be excused. (As of this past weekend, five students have sought an excused absence. Four have been approved; the other is awaiting further information and appears likely to be approved.) Unexcused students who fail to attend will have a simple “did not attend” notation entered in their file. That is the full extent of the “memorandum” mentioned in the Dean’s e-mail to students, informing them of the program. (The Dean has apologized in two open forums with students for the perceived tone of the e-mail, which was intended to communicate transparently that students in a professional school are accountable to attend mandatory programs.)

But, Jesus, I can’t believe this. I think that, despite the Dean’s clarification, I’m going to have to side with the allegedly unprofessional and bigoted Idaho Law students. The mandatory diversity program itself sounds so underwhelming — 75-minute sessions with a black guy who happens to be the dean of another law school:

The dialogue sessions, convened and facilitated by Dean Morant will be closed, “safe” conversations in which participants will be free to express candid views. Participants will be invited to raise questions, including criticisms regarding professionalism or diversity itself. Dean Morant has invited students to submit questions or comments in advance, anonymously if they wish.

Dean Blake Morant

Please. They should give me 75 minutes with potentially unprofessional and bigoted law students. It would be totally “safe” (assuming I had adequate police protection):

IDAHO LAW STUDENT: Umm, every time I see a black person, I assume he’s lazy, underqualified, or both. Is that wrong?

ELIE: Yes. And racist. You should call your parents and ask them why they did such a s**tty job raising you. Then you should go play in traffic. Next question.

Or does Dean Blake Morant have some special way of answering that makes the kids feel “safe”?

It just seems to me that a perfectly non-bigoted, very professional Idaho Law student wouldn’t need 75 minutes with a black guy in order to figure out how to not be a dick to people who have brown skin. Sometimes I think people act like not being racist is really hard. It’s not. Not being racist is natural. It’s sometimes hard to see all of your learned prejudices for what they are, but the people who said whatever they said to discomfit the ABA auditors knew darn well that what they were saying was inappropriate. They just thought they would get away with it (probably just like they always have).

A note in a file isn’t going to get them there. Maybe if there were more people of color around, they’d figure it out, but if there aren’t a lot of black and brown people eager to go to Idaho, that’s not really something the law school can fix either.

Honestly, instead of diversity workshops and permanent records, I think the best solution for Idaho is to not admitted potentially unprofessional bigots. I haven’t been to Idaho, but I’m pretty sure that there are enough people out there who want to go to law school and wouldn’t say things to make ABA auditors blush. Despite what you might read or what gets highlighted on the news, most people are reasonable.

I don’t know, maybe Dean Morant needs to spend 75 minutes talking to the Idaho admissions committee while he’s up there.

(You can read the students’ open letter to Dean Burnett, and the statement that Dean Burnett sent to Above the Law, on the next page.)

(hidden for your protection)

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