Diversity Panel Offers Mixed Reviews of Law School's Culture
A panel and audience of students debated the meaning of diversity and its role at the Law School, while documenting their own struggles and successes in finding a place in the community during an event sponsored by the Student Bar Association Sept. 24.
Panelists expressed the perceptions they had about the school's diversity before starting law school. "I saw that there were a lot of viewpoints and political diversity at this school — more than a lot of other law schools at this level," said Lillian Omand, president of the Federalist Society, in explaining why she chose Virginia. She said she would include life experiences in her definition of diversity, as well as social situations such as being married, and having a variety of viewpoints.
Retired Navy officer and Virginia Law Families president David Glazier liked Virginia because "it's very important to me that people have interests other than academics," since he knew his family was top priority for him. Furthermore, the school had a reputation for a friendly faculty and student body.
As an undergraduate at the University, Black Law Students Association vice-president James Whitehead said he was involved in ethnic-based student groups, which he thought contributed to his current focus on racial issues in diversity. While he called diversity an "amorphous" concept, he found that when he thinks of diversity, "I just think of it as a pretext for race." He noted that the new undergraduate requirement for online diversity training faces opposition from the recently formed Individual Rights Coalition. "As far as this school's concerned, I don't think it's quite there [on diversity]," he said.
Lambda Law Alliance president D.J. Moore, who also attended the University as an undergraduate — and called the experience "isolating" — instead found the Law School "to be an incredibly accepting and incredibly open environment," where people "engage in an array of wonderful integrated activities." He added that students are "hungry" to understand where other students are coming from here.
"I think I have a pretty wide view of what diversity would entail," added third-year Law student Davis Kim. He said he thinks about diversity more since coming to a law school that was less diverse than his undergraduate school. But he doesn't consider race the sole issue of diversity. "I think that diversity entails a lot of different ideas and perspectives."
California native Paula Ro, president of the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA), said she found herself looking at diversity more as a racial issue after coming to Virginia. "Diversity can be a tricky issue at U.Va. because there's a chicken and an egg cycle," she said. "Sometimes I get the feeling that non-minorities assume we want to separate ourselves … which is totally not the truth at all."
Kim later added that cultural groups actually help students looking for a voice to represent them. "A lot of times I think what these groups are trying to do is bring people together." He said past studies from UCLA and Michigan show that student ethnic groups increase minority participation in activities. "If our groups didn't exist, would we all be here discussing diversity? Maybe not."
Audience members asked panelists about the problems of increasing awareness of diversity issues, and how to get a broader range of people to attend events sponsored by ethnic-based student organizations.
"It's a problem when you have events and it always feels like you're preaching to the choir," Whitehead responded.
Glazier said many assume that the events sponsored by groups such as APALSA are directed solely at organization members. "One of the challenges I think is to figure out how to market these events to a broader audience." He praised last semester's Diversity Week as an example of joint sponsorship of events that raised awareness and attracted a variety of students. He has wondered before it was appropriate to bring his children to events because they are often not advertised as family-friendly, but ironically, when he has, they've been "more than welcome."
Many students in the audience and the panel agreed that students often struggle to find their place outside the mainstream, what some called the "beer-and-softball" culture of the Law School.
In response, Glazier criticized the organizer of many such events, the Student Bar Association, noting that the "Bar" in the name seemed to stand for the "place you go to get beer." He also said the SBA president each year appears to represent the beer-and-softball type of student — not necessarily the majority of the student body. He urged other students to run for office to act for those who aren't represented well in the SBA. Kim added that SBA elections do not draw as many candidates as they should.
Students in the audience criticized a recent Virginia Law Weekly column that referred to "self-segregation." One audience member said the article was offensive for assuming that minorities must make the effort to assimilate with white students rather than have whites reach out to minorities. "I've never actually had diversity issues with who I am and my race" until coming to the Law School, she said, adding that when she talks about beer-and-softball culture, she's really talking about the white culture at U.Va.
Omand objected to associating beer-and-softball culture with the racial divide. "I'm white and I'm not associated with softball culture," she said. "I was worried before I came here that I would feel left out because I didn't play softball," she said. "Pretty soon I just started developing my own friends and own things to do."
Glazier, who heads a group of 40 parents at the Law School, responded, "I can tell you that by and large we feel as isolated from the Law School as you do." The isolation that ethnic groups feel is actually felt by significant numbers of whites, he added.
The Law Weekly columnist defended himself, saying "I'm a radical non-racial individualist." He said race was a social construct, and added that he's offended when people assume he's in APALSA — or as an undergraduate, the Chinese Student Association. "Race remains very much a part of our society. That's what I'm trying to change," he said.
Other students disputed whether you could completely ignore race and culture. "How can you reject the social values you've grown up with?" one student asked.
Another audience member said the diversity problem wasn't just a U.Va. issue. "I don't see many people like myself" here, she said. "It doesn't affect me now like it would have" 15 years ago, if she had attended law school right after college. "The remedy isn't going to be as simple as 'let's bring more people here.'"
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.