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Conservative Students Threaten UI Law School Accreditation
UPDATED 2/16 BELOW
Several days ago I received reports of a flap brewing on the University of Idaho College of Law campus about conservative students outraged at the mandatory attendance requirement for a diversity training seminar. Diversity training is often required by employers and schools to help avoid liability in discrimination litigation, such as happened to the law school in George v. University of Idaho. Thereafter I received a copy of a letter dated February 3, 2012 addressed to Dean Burnett, a former Idaho appellate judge, signed by 21 Idaho lawmakers, including, Speaker of the House Lawerence Denney, House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, and House Majority Leader Mike Moyle. The scolding letter acknowledges the importance of diversity training but takes issue with the mandatory attendance requirement and the consequences of failing to attend, a memo noting lack of attendance to be placed in the student's permanent file. The letter is silent with regard to the the underlying reasons for the training or the attendance requirement, only that the consequence of failure implies that the student might be characterized as a bigot which is "unacceptable".
On February 6, Dean Burnett responded acknowledging that the legislators lacked the underlying information regarding the necessity of the training. Burnett cited to the rules applicable to law schools one of which requires, through "concrete action", that the school provide an opportunity for education for all, particularly for those underrepresented. For accreditation, the law school must promote a diverse legal profession representative of the population. Moreover the rules of professional conduct preclude attorneys from manifesting through words and conduct bias or prejudice towards people on the basis of race, sex, religion and the classes of people historically disadvantaged and protected by law. Then Burnett proceeds to diplomatically inform the legislators that these rules were violated.
In October, 2011, a joint team from the ABA and AALS visited the UI College of Law as part of a review process that occurs every seven years. The team included lawyers as well as academics; three of its members were or had been law school deans. Several of them had conducted site review visits at up to ten or more law schools. During a four-day visit to Moscow and Boise, they had many scheduled and casual interactions with students, staff, and faculty. During their exit briefings with me and with University administrators, the team referred to these interactions and stated emphatically that the College of Law needed to focus additional attention upon professionalism and diversity.
Emphasis mine. I've conversed with two students who confirm that the "interactions with students" included one who expressed the opinion that women should not be enrolled in law school. At one of the meetings, when the suggestion of diversity training came up, several 'conservative' students objected to having that "diversity shit" shoved down their throats.
Dean Burnett continued his schooling of the legislators with information about the "training" he had scheduled:
In January, 2012, as part of the implementation of the College’s diversity plan, and in light of the ABA/AALS visitors’ observations, the College of Law arranged for Dean Blake Morant of Wake Forest University (see attached biographical summary) to visit the College in February and to conduct a program entitled “Dialogues on Professionalism and Diversity.” The program will consist of one 75-minute session with each class of students (first-year, second-year, third-year in Moscow, and third-year in Boise), plus sessions with staff and faculty at Moscow and Boise. The sessions will complement our required professionalism program on the first day of law school, and the Professional Responsibility course taken by all students.
The sessions, convened and facilitated by Dean Morant, will be closed, “safe” conversations in
which participants are free and encouraged to express candid views. Participants will be invited to raise questions, including criticisms regarding professionalism or diversity itself. These will not be “talk at” sessions with a “politically correct” orthodoxy. Dean Morant has invited students to submit questions or comments in advance, anonymously if they wish, and he will include them in the dialogues as time permits.
Dean Burnett then explained the privacy of student's permanent files and their opportunity to provide supplemental information explaining items placed in the file. Burnett also filled the void of legislator's ignorance with regard to objective standards available for students who had a hardship in attending. The Dean also acknowledged apologizing to students for his "harsh tone" in emphasizing the mandatory attendance requirement, which from hindsight seems entirely reasonable, considering that accreditation occurs once every seven years, and losing accreditation would mean Idaho would be without an accredited law school. Moreover, losing accreditation meant that Idaho law graduates' careers would be jeopardized since they would no longer automatically be allowed to take the bar exam in any state they choose. Dean Burnett incongruously, but understandably, emphasized the pride he had in his students.
Dean Burnett's response letter is a model of diplomacy providing a rational and informative response to powerful and vindictive law makers with control over funding for Idaho's only College of Law. Unfortunately the lazy media reports have a totally different characterization, that Dean Burnett was justifiably called on the carpet for heavy handed tactics designed to impugn the reputation of the students, when just the opposite is true. Dean Burnett was endeavoring to save the school the embarrassment of losing accreditation because a few students made discriminatory, prejudicial or comments evincing bias, to the accreditation committee.
The signatories on the 'scolding letter' are all representative of the right wing of Idaho Republican party most of whom enthusiastically embraced Governor Otter's plan for shutting down Idaho's Human Rights Commission, the State Independent Living Council, the Developmental Disabilities Council, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission, and the Hispanic Commission. At best, these legislators chose to utilize heavy handed tactics to support law students,with whom they have an ideologically sympathetic relationship, based solely upon the information those students chose to supply them. At worst these legislators are willing participants in using threats and intimidation to further an ideological agenda to dismantle legal standards which promote fairness and equality for the disadvantaged. In either event, they owe Dean Burnett a huge apology for jeopardizing his efforts in saving the University of Idaho College of Law's accreditation and for doing his best to prevent even more information in the public sphere enhancing Idaho's reputation as a haven for bigotry.
UPDATED 2/16: The Idaho Statesman wrote an editorial calling out the 21 legislators for micromanaging the law school. But they were sorely remiss in getting to the bottom of the story and identifying the underlying reasons for the diversity training and the consequences of failure. This Lewiston Morning Tribune article gets much closer to the mark but fails to rebuke the scolding letter. Certainly they're trying hard not to inflame the delicate situation, but if Idaho loses accreditation, they will be examples of not taking this seriously enough.