Weaving a Tapestry: The Diversity Report

By: Bill Schulz

One of the most important, perhaps the most important challenge that faced the Paul M. Hebert Law Center’s Diversity Task Force (and its successor the Standing Committee on Diversity and Inclusion) was defining what diversity is. While a one-sentence definition of diversity is a tricky proposition, a fair understanding of the term as the Task Force understood it might be inclusiveness. Perhaps given Louisiana’s troubled history of race relations, the word “diversity” has become a binary concept, expressing purely a white/black notion of society. In Twenty-First century America, however, diversity is no longer shackled to merely black and white, nor is the concept of race itself any longer moored in the problematic domain of black/white, as it now includes ideas of ethnicity, nationality, and bi-raciality(1). For this reason alone, there is a theoretical and practical imperative to expand diversity beyond older understandings of the term into a consciously more inclusive paradigm that settles, perhaps ambiguously, but nevertheless accurately into the phrase “diversity and inclusiveness.” It is this understanding of the concept of diversity that the Diversity Task Force has embraced as the most inclusive currently available. For, too, the concept of inclusivity goes beyond simple diversity, even in the broader sense of the term suggested above, into the realms of gender, sexual orientation, and religion. Here, the Task Force’s report on diversity and their suggestion as to a specific diversity statement for the Law Center to adopt is entirely sympathetic to the goal of creating an academic environment in which the tapestry of Twenty-First century America is fully displayed.

At this point, the work of the formal Task Force is complete, and its report has been released. The task of implementation of the recommendations in the report has now fallen to the newly created Standing Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. Headed by Professor Christina Sautter, the Committee’s time has initially been devoted to liaising with the faculty and the Student Bar Association, examining the budget and legal issues involved with implementing the Task Force’s recommendations, and developing short, mid, and long range plans for accomplishing its goals of increasing diversity and inclusiveness, while also raising the standard of professional conduct expected of both students and faculty members. One of the Committee’s immediate goals is the restructuring of the student code of conduct, a delicate balancing act. The new code will be expected to both curb unacceptable behavior such as that which prompted the creation of the Diversity Task Force in the first place, and also not interfere with constitutionally protected speech. According to Task Force member Professor John Church, the Task Force did not engage in any fact finding, nor did it investigate, in detail, reports of racism, sexism, and other offensive behavior, however its members did conclude that enough anecdotal evidence existed to prompt the wide variety of changes that it recommended.

On the issue of speech codes and student conduct, the Committee is being guided by the report on diversity and speech protections prepared by Professor Emeritus Kenneth Murchison at the request of former Chancellor Jack Weiss, and is also receiving guidance from Louisiana State University’s Office of General Counsel.(2) The chief issue in this is the danger of punishing offensive, but legally authorized speech. LSU has lately been in the spotlight over free speech issues, as evidenced by the recent firing of Professor Teresa Buchanan on professionalism grounds, and the university holding the worst possible rating on free speech issues by the campus free speech watchdog and legal advocacy group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).(3)

Importantly, Professor Church noted that as LSU is a public institution, it must walk a fine line in terms of setting standards of professionalism that deal with speech issues. Specifically, he noted that one of the Task Force’s key recommendations regarding this is the creation of a Student Mediation Board, in which student board members will be able to directly address complaints regarding offensive or unprofessional behavior via a peer education system which is much less likely to run afoul of constitutional issues than a university-administered speech code. Professor Sautter has already helped to create the new position of Student Bar Association diversity officer, and has recommended that a diversity representative be appointed for each class group, with the first year class having two representatives, as they will be the most impacted by upcoming changes. As a side note to the issue of student conduct, the Committee intends to hold faculty to the same standard of professionalism as students, with the understanding that faculty are additionally governed by certain employment regulations.

A more mid-range goal for the Committee is the creation of an Office of Student Affairs, chiefly concerned with student professionalism (code of conduct issues) and diversity. The proposed new office will likely be headed by an experienced attorney who will hold associate dean rank. Student member of the Committee, Andrew Hairston hopes that this new associate dean will have some teaching responsibilities so as to be able to interact with students as much as possible. Mr. Hairston believes that this will also give the new appointee a sense of how diversity works in practice at PMH. At this time, Professor Sautter is not able to give an exact date on when the new expansion will take place, but suggests that whomever is chosen as the new dean of the law center will likely be able to provide more details on this matter.(4)

As a long-term goal, Professors Church and Sautter report that the Committee recommends the creation of a student diversity journal, perhaps structured similarly to Law Review or the Journal of Energy Law and Resources. The Committee also intends to shift how PMH looks at recruitment, moving from a heavily quantitative to a more qualitative paradigm. This is not to suggest that quantitative factors will be ignored, as Mr. Hairston noted that in some ways, the quantitative goal will help move toward achievement of the qualitative goal. Quantitative standards may come under fire in a case currently before the United States Supreme Court, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (colloquially known as Fisher II). Given at least a possibility of hostility toward standards that are heavily quantitative appearing in the Court’s ultimate ruling, however, the Task Force’s recommendation, taken up by the Committee, was that qualitative standards be the driving force for PMH’s efforts to achieve greater diversity. What the qualitative standards might look like, however, are still a bit unclear. Mr. Hairston and Professors Church and Sautter explained that the Committee is not modelling PMH’s diversity goals or statement on any existing institution, but are rather drawing directly from the Louisiana State Bar Association’s diversity statement. PMH will be the first Louisiana law school to use the LSBA’s diversity statement if it is formally adopted, an important goal for the Committee. This statement, if adopted, will feature prominently on the school’s website and on future recruiting material.

What is important to understand about the drive to increase diversity at PMH is that it is not an aspirational goal. Serious progress toward a new statement on diversity, a new code of student conduct, the establishment of a permanent office responsible for these matters, and the creation of a student-run mediation board has been made. While the Committee’s task is far from over, they have taken great strides toward the goal of creating a more inclusive environment at PMH. Their work so far might be something that other schools use as a template for their own efforts at increasing diversity, making LSU a leader in the national conversation on inclusiveness and social justice, an achievement that its students and faculty should be proud of.


 

1. For a good overview of the theoretical problems of race, ethnicity and biracialism, see Lewis Gordon’s Her Majesty’s Children: Sketches of Racism from a Neo-Colonial Age, (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997).

2. Several Task Force and Committee members have indicated that while the Murchison report did provide basic guidance, its recommendations were not decisive, nor were they embraced in their entirety.

3. FIRE has been involved in legal action against LSU since at least 2005, when they helped overturn the university’s refusal to recognize the Muslim Student Association. Recently, they helped the Alliance Defending Freedom to end “Free Speech Alley,” a designated free-speech zone which unlawfully restricted the rights of students to free speech (in this case pro-life advocacy) by siting that right in only one small area and requiring prior university permission to operate outside of it. LSU currently holds three
red lights for speech code related issues in FIRE’s rating system; these are defined as policies, “that both clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech.” See FIRE’s website at www.thefire.org.

4. The Committee on Diversity and Professionalism has no budgetary information or input, so is not directly involved with the funding of the new Office.

 

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