Tallahassee Democrat Online
May 12, 1999

Discord a threat to recruitment at FSU law school

Perceived racial and gender hostility can do nothing but hurt a school with a commendable minority student recruitment record.

  1. How much easier life would be if all of your family, friends, professional associates and other acquaintances always perceived your motives and intentions exactly as you had intended.

  2. But that's a pipe dream. Subjectivity is a part of human nature. Perceptions matter -- even though perceptions aren't always accurate.

  3. That's why the latest fuss at Florida State University's College of Law is so troubling. Five women on the faculty have resigned recently. Four of them cited a work environment at the law school that was pervasively hostile to women and minorities. (One man, the husband of one of the female faculty members, also resigned.)

  4. Whether that allegation is true is, to a large extent, a matter of interpretation. What one professor may have perceived as sexist or racist may have been intended as something else, as is often the case. The workplace at the FSU law school is subject to the same ambiguities and insensitivities that exist in almost every diverse American workplace in the '90s.

  5. FSU administrators have made what appear to be sincere efforts to reshape the environment at the law school, which they and an outside panel agree lacks civility. They have promoted discussions about race and gender sensitivity both at the college and among practicing attorneys. What is discouraging is that they have apparently failed miserably so far.

  6. The most vulnerable victim may be the college's reputation, primarily among prospective students who are minorities or women.

  7. That would be particularly ironic for a school with an enviable record of seeking and maintaining diversity. The college has maintained a minority enrollment of nearly 25 percent for the past several years, despite a national decline in the percentage of minority law school applicants. The law school's success hasn't been a fluke; it has made concerted efforts to bring more minorities and women into the legal profession.

  8. Interim Dean Donald Weidner said he is deeply troubled by the allegations behind the resignations because of "the message it sends to students and prospective students."

  9. While Weidner and FSU President Sandy D'Alemberte bear a significant amount of responsibility for seeing that the problem is fixed, they shouldn't bear all of it. The law faculty must be willing to be as brutally honest about its failure to maintain a civil environment as it apparently has been in critiquing the work of untenured colleagues, many of whom were minorities and women. It's not enough to explain away questionable behavior as academic elitism.

  10. Law schools aren't always the most friendly places. Debate is often pointed and sharp. That's not only appropriate, it's desirable. The law is a product of constructive debate.

  11. It is reasonable to expect the dialogue -- particularly among professors -- to be civil. It is also reasonable to expect them to be more circumspect about behavior that runs the risk of being perceived as racist or sexist.

  12. Unfortunately, this comes at a time when the law school is already reeling from complaints against Professor William McHugh, who is under investigation for allegedly exposing himself to a student. Whatever the findings in the McHugh case, it is clear that the law school faculty and administration must take a serious look at themselves and the implications of their behavior.

  13. More than anyone, legal scholars should be well-aware of litigation trends regarding racial and gender discrimination. Behavior that is widely perceived as crossing the line simply should not be tolerated.

Posted at 1:08 a.m. EDT Wednesday, May 12, 1999

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This is a page in the section entitled Why Can't Law Schools Teach Ethics? --FSU in the Web site entitled Legal Reform through Transforming the Discipline of Law into a Science .