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
Posted at 1:08 a.m. EDT Wednesday, May 12,
- 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.
- But that's a pipe dream. Subjectivity is a part of human nature.
Perceptions matter -- even though perceptions aren't always accurate.
- 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.)
- 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
- 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.
- The most vulnerable victim may be the college's reputation, primarily
among prospective students who are minorities or women.
- 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
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
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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 .