Student questions diversity at law school

April 19, 2011
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Question: If you were a law student, and your school hung banners that featured minorities in the school as promotion of the law school, would you:

A)    Even pay attention to the banners
B)    Think, “Look how diverse my law school is.”
C)    Write an anonymous letter to your fellow classmates about how those banners make you feel unwelcome

For one Indiana University School of Law - Indianapolis student, the answer is C. He or she has taken to the Internet to profess feeling “unwelcome” because of three banners hanging in the school’s atrium showing African-American students. The email – from a Gmail account with the subject line “Law School Injustice” was highlighted on the national blog “Above the Law” Monday afternoon.

This student calls himself/herself “The Invisible Man,” but for ease of writing and reading, I’m going to assume this person is a male based on the choice of signature.

This person claims these banners don’t offer an accurate depiction of the school, argues the school should support diversity of many groups, not just African-American males, and claims the Office of Professional Development – which has been run by African-American females in recent years – helps African-Americans more than others. This student also claims that many students share these concerns.

I received a copy of the email this morning and the entire letter is posted at Above the Law.

“It is a shame that the only place many groups see representation at the law school is with their reflection in the bathroom mirrors,” the writer says.

Obviously this person is upset and bitter about something. Is he upset because he’s a white male (or female) who feels he’s being ignored and passed over because he’s white? Is the writer a member of another minority group who is discouraged that his race or ethnicity isn’t featured prominently in ads? Is this just a racist person?

If this person feels so strongly about this topic, why not sign the email? I wonder if the writer voiced his concerns to the Office of Professional Development or other administrative staff and didn’t receive the answer or assistance the writer had hoped for, or perhaps this person just wants to stir the pot. There are people who like creating drama.

I’ve reached out to the law school for comment, and received a copy of an email Dean Gary Roberts sent out. More on that in a moment.  I also sent an email to “The Invisible Man,” but no response yet. Others are commenting: on the ATL website, on other sites, and directly to me.

Erin Albert, a 3L in the 4-year part-time evening division, wrote a post Monday on her blog about the letter. She said: “The thing that frustrates me the most about this random anonymous note (aside from it being poorly written, I didn’t agree with most of it personally, and the fact that it is, totally anonymous) is that it focuses 100% on complaining, and 0% on how to actually suggest fixing the problem(s).”

“I replied to said invisible person and told her/him that if all they learned in law school was to complain about problems rather than figure out how to solve them and provide some solutions, they didn’t get their money’s worth out of their education. (Furthermore, this is the last person I’d want as my own lawyer…imagine hiring a lawyer to fix a problem, while instead he or she sits around and keeps complaining about it. #Fail.)”

Albert says she has no problems with how IU-Indy is being portrayed in its marketing materials and will even be in the video shot in the atrium that “The Invisible Man” referenced in the email.

Bethany Nine-Lawson, a 2L in the evening program, said she doesn’t know why this person decided to complain now as the banners have been up for a few weeks and don’t seem any different than any other promotions the law school has done. She believes the law school “does a great job of creating an environment for people from all walks of life to succeed.”

She pointed out that her evening division section is about one-quarter minority students, which is roughly the same as the minority population of Marion County, where the law school is located. There are several theories circulating around the school as to who the author is, and she thinks it’s a 3L who’s frustrated by the job market and feels like the school should have done more to help him secure employment. Nine-Lawson said the OPD seems to do a good job of helping students search for jobs and perhaps “The Invisible Man” thought he could coast through law school and get a job easily upon graduation.

“Anyone who has read the news in the last few years should know that they cannot expect that to happen without some additional effort. A legal education does not entitle one to a job, nor does it guarantee one. But lashing out anonymously doesn't help matters, either,” she wrote in an email to IL.  

Dean Roberts said in his email to students that he hesitated to respond out of worry that it would risk "escalating the rhretoric well beyond what is useful or healthy," but needed to clarify the school's commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Those banners that upset "The Invisible Man" are only a few of the number of banners that will be hung in the atrium as part of the school's marketing campaign. These banners have been held up because of technical glitches and feature white students and professors. Once hung, it will provide more racial balance.

"However, that really is not the issue.  It is unfortunate that in a large building where the overwhelming majority of photographs and portraits are of white people, mostly white men, anyone would focus only on three of the four easily moveable posters at one end of the atrium and conclude that he is therefore unwelcome," wrote Roberts. "Perhaps this anonymous student will feel more welcome if he focuses instead on the hallway outside my office where portraits of the last 13 deans of this law school hang – 12 white men and one white woman.  In fact, I find this whole discussion ironic in that I am usually taken to task on this subject purportedly because the makeup of the faculty and student body, as well as the artwork on our walls, is not diverse enough and that the law school is therefore unwelcoming to various types of minority students.  Apparently anyone can feel unwelcome if they choose to focus only on the things they find unwelcoming, which is sad given that it is the firm commitment of this law school to be inclusive, diverse, and welcoming of all people regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability.  That is certainly my commitment and it will continue to be so."

Roberts also defended the OPD, saying the African-American woman and white male in the office are committed to all students and do not give better service to a particular group of students. He also reinforced that discrimination in any form will not be tolerated.

Diversity is always a touchy subject, no matter if you’re in law school or at a firm. It can be a difficult subject to discuss, too, so perhaps this letter can start a dialogue between those who are truly bothered by the diversity representation at the law school (if there are any others beyond this student) and school administrators. In fact, Roberts suggested putting this issue on the school's fall agenda if necessary.  If the author has a problem with diversity at the law school, hopefully he’ll take it up with the appropriate administrators before firing off another foolish email.
 

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  • Ralph Ellison inspired?
    Perhaps this student has been reading Ralph Ellison's racially charged 1952 bestseller and National Book Award winning novel, Invisible Man. The parallels are infinite.
  • backlash
    I think Invisible Man's comments are likely not aimed at the posters themselve, but the result of not being able to find a job, and the feeling that AA's are being given special treatment in the job market. AFter all, how many job postings say "white males are particularly encouraged to apply"? And if they did so, what the furor would be about that? So, I think Invisible Man is reacting out of frustration to the fact that in a very tight job market, various minority groups are often perceived as having an advantage just by virtue of their minority status.
  • Placement rate
    After writing my original post, here is a question that should help address the perception of whether minorities receive an advantage on placement. What is the job placement rate for the law school for, white males, white females, AA males, and AA females? I would think the answer to that question would shed some light on the matter one way or another.

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