Stu­dents for months have ques­tioned low num­bers of Black fac­ulty

Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - BY ELVIA MALAGÓN, STAFF REPORTER emalagón@sun­ | @Elvi­aMalagon

When the North­west­ern Pritzker School of Law sent a mes­sage to stu­dents to ad­dress the death of Ge­orge Floyd, it didn’t de­tail that, for months, stu­dents at the law school had pushed for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to ad­dress the low num­ber of Black fac­ulty mem­bers teach­ing there.

Frus­trated by the lack of ac­tion over di­ver­sity con­cerns that stu­dents had spo­ken out about and by top school of­fi­cials not ex­plic­itly stat­ing “Black lives mat­ter,” stu­dents like McKayla Stokes, a re­cent law school grad­u­ate, went pub­lic with their con­cerns.

Is­sues within the fac­ulty weren’t iso­lated, one cur­rent law stu­dent said, trick­ling down to stu­dents through mi­croag­gres­sions in the class­room.

“That my si­lence was con­tribut­ing to the racist en­vi­ron­ment, it no longer sat right for me to not speak up,” Stokes said.

In re­cent weeks, she and oth­ers used the hash­tag #NLawIn­dif­fer­ence, a spin on the school’s mar­ket­ing slo­gan, to chron­i­cle their ef­forts to get the law school to spell out a plan to hire, re­tain and pro­mote di­verse fac­ulty mem­bers.

In the wake of the unrest caused by Ge­orge Floyd’s death, stu­dents na­tion­wide have gone pub­lic with their ef­forts to get ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions to ad­dress racism. At the Univer­sity of Michi­gan Law School, stu­dents used #MLawLoud to am­plify the ex­pe­ri­ences of Black stu­dents. In June, an In­sta­gram ac­count named “Black at Har­vard Law” shared anony­mous sto­ries from Black stu­dents.

North­west­ern re­cently an­nounced Dean Kim Yu­racko was step­ping down from the law school July 31 to take a role within the univer­sity’s of­fice of provost. Yu­racko de­clined to be in­ter­viewed but sent a state­ment to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Yu­racko pointed to a let­ter pub­lished in June high­light­ing some of the ef­forts the school planned to un­der­take to ad­dress the stu­dents’ con­cerns, such as hir­ing more Black fac­ulty, hir­ing a con­sul­tant to help the school with di­ver­sity ef­forts and un­der­go­ing anti-racism train­ing. The let­ter cited two re­cently hired fac­ulty mem­bers as ex­am­ples of reach­ing those goals.

“But we have more work to do,” Yu­racko said in the state­ment. “I rec­og­nize that, my ad­min­is­tra­tors rec­og­nize that, and the fac­ulty rec­og­nizes that. We are firmly com­mit­ted to im­prov­ing the Law School ex­pe­ri­ence for our Black stu­dents, and cre­at­ing a cul­ture where all mem­bers of our com­mu­nity feel val­ued and re­spected.”

Nora Sny­der, a re­cent law school grad­u­ate, said the push for change wasn’t aimed at one per­son but rather the en­tire law school. She is hope­ful that who­ever leads the school will com­mit to mak­ing sys­temic changes and that stu­dents of color will have a say in who becomes dean.

The stu­dents’ ef­forts started last sum­mer af­ter re­al­iz­ing three Black fac­ulty mem­bers had left North­west­ern. A group of 20 to 25 stu­dents came to­gether, call­ing them­selves “con­cerned stu­dents,” and pushed for the law school ad­min­is­tra­tion to ad­dress the de­par­tures.

Cy­erra McGowan, a law stu­dent and for­mer pres­i­dent of the Black Law Stu­dent As­so­ci­a­tion, said the de­par­tures of Black fac­ulty left just two Black mem­bers. There were 240 fac­ulty mem­bers dur­ing the 2018-2019 year, ac­cord­ing to the school’s Amer­i­can Bar As­so­ci­a­tion dis­clo­sure.

About 8% of North­west­ern Pritzker School of Law’s ten­ure-track fac­ulty are Black com­pared with 75% who are white, ac­cord­ing to a 2019 re­port from the univer­sity’s of­fice of in­sti­tu­tional di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion. About 3% of the law school’s clin­i­cal and in­struc­tional fac­ulty are Black com­pared with 88% who are white, ac­cord­ing to the same re­port. Nearly 5% of the law school’s stu­dent body is Black.

An­other re­port from the same of­fice ex­am­ined fac­ulty data from fall 2006 through fall 2015. Dur­ing that pe­riod, the law school had four Black ten­ure fac­ulty mem­bers, though the num­ber of Black ten­ure fac­ulty mem­bers de­creased to two in 2012 and 2013. The law school had fewer than four Black in­struc­tional and clin­i­cal fac­ulty mem­bers dur­ing that time, with the num­ber dip­ping to one Black fac­ulty mem­ber in 2015.

At the top 14 law schools, in­clud­ing North­west­ern, mi­nor­ity fac­ulty mem­bers make up 5% to 19% of fac­ulty re­sources, ac­cord­ing to data uni­ver­si­ties pro­vided to the Amer­i­can Bar As­so­ci­a­tion in 2019. Ge­orge­town Univer­sity’s law school has the low­est per­cent­age — 5% — of mi­nor­ity fac­ulty mem­bers.

Nearly 13% of North­west­ern’s law school’s fac­ulty con­sists of mi­nori­ties. Law schools at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia and the Univer­sity of Michi­gan had lower per­cent­ages of mi­nor­ity fac­ulty — 10% — than North­west­ern. The Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia has the high­est per­cent­age with mi­nor­ity fac­ulty mak­ing up 19.92%.

Last fall, the stu­dents or­ga­nized a town hall with Yu­racko to dis­cuss the cul­ture that led to the de­par­ture of Black fac­ulty mem­bers. In the months that fol­lowed, the stu­dents met with the dean, wrote memos and of­fered feed­back to a plan she had cre­ated to ad­dress the di­ver­sity con­cerns. Stu­dents say that plan was scrapped amid the COVID-19 pan­demic.

For McGowan, the year of push­ing for the school to ad­dress its race is­sues left her feel­ing frus­trated. On top of nav­i­gat­ing law school as a Black stu­dent, she and other stu­dents feel a bur­den to push for di­ver­sity is­sues by join­ing com­mit­tees, lead­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions and spear­head­ing ef­forts like they did this past year.

“We are hav­ing the same con­ver­sa­tion, and we haven’t moved the nee­dle on any­thing,” McGowan said.

The group felt strongly they shouldn’t be ex­pected to find so­lu­tions to the school’s di­ver­sity prob­lems, said Nel­lie Mitchell, an­other law school stu­dent.

Law stu­dent Luke Fern­bach said the group didn’t ini­tially want to go pub­lic with their ef­forts be­cause they wor­ried about re­tal­i­a­tion es­pe­cially against Black stu­dents speak­ing out.

“We all know that the law his­tor­i­cally has been used as a tool to sub­ju­gate and op

press Black peo­ple in this coun­try from the coun­try’s found­ing,” Fern­bach said. “As a law school, if we are not ac­tively work­ing to dis­man­tle that racist system, then we are just con­tribut­ing to it if we aren’t chal­leng­ing it and try­ing to dis­rupt it.”

Stokes, now a re­cent grad­u­ate, plans to fig­ure out how alumni can help stu­dents con­tinue to put pres­sure on the new dean to make changes to the school’s cul­ture.

For now, she would like to see a time­line and more trans­parency about the work the school’s con­sul­tant will do.

“Those of us who are most in­volved love North­west­ern just as much, if not more,” Stokes said. “That’s why we are com­mit­ted.”


The North­west­ern Pritzker School of Law.

PRO­VIDED A group of North­west­ern law stu­dents who call them­selves “con­cerned stu­dents” or­ga­nized a town hall last fall af­ter learn­ing that three Black fac­ulty mem­bers had left with­out any for­mal ac­knowl­edg­ment from the North­west­ern Pritzker School of Law.

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