Law School aims for faculty diversity

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Photo by Joy Chen.

At a town hall on faculty diversity held Tuesday afternoon, more than 140 Yale Law School students gathered to learn about the school’s faculty hiring process.

But early in the hourlong meeting, Dean Robert Post LAW ’77 made an announcement: a Hispanic woman had been offered tenure. Six attendees of the meeting, who requested anonymity because the session was closed to the press, identified Cristina Rodriguez ’95 LAW ’00 as the potential hire.

If Rodriguez — who was a visiting faculty member in fall 2009 — accepts the offer, she will become the first Hispanic professor to whom Law School has awarded tenure.

Rudolph Aragon LAW ’79, who served as a co-chair of the Latino Asian Native American law students association (LANA) during his years as a student at the Law School, said the announcement was “long coming.”

His classmate and fellow LANA co-chair, Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79, had already become the first Hispanic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009. The Law School — ranked number one by U.S. News & World Report since the publication began evaluating law schools in 1987 — has diversified its tenured faculty ranks in recent decades, but has not yet given tenure to a Hispanic professor.

“How can it be that the Supreme Court has a Latina justice, and YLS has never had a tenured Latino faculty member?” said Carel Alé LAW ’11, who served as a co-chair of the Latino Law Student Association while at the Law School.

But even as Rodriguez decides whether to take an office at 127 Wall St., students, alumni and faculty interviewed said they hope the Law School’s efforts to diversify its faculty will not end with Rodriguez’s offer.

‘THINGS WILL CHANGE’

When Aragon was a student, he said LANA encouraged administrators to increase the Law School’s faculty diversity.

The student body at the time was itself far from its current diversity. Today, according to data from the American Bar Association and Law School Admissions Council, Yale Law School’s student body of 629 full-time students includes 46 Hispanic students, 1 Native American student, 83 Asian students and 41 black students.

But when Aragon was a student, he said, the school required groups to have 10 initial members in order to be formally recognized. There were too few minority students of each ethnicity to form group to exist separately, so Aragon said three minority backgrounds had to band together in order to create LANA.

Aragon, who identifies as Hispanic, recalled questioning Harry Wellington, the Law School dean at the time, about what he perceived as a shortage of people of color on the faculty.

“His words to us were, ‘We have to be patient, we have to wait, things will change,’ ” Aragon said.

More than 30 years later, law students interviewed said many of their peers remain dissatisfied with the level of diversity in the school’s faculty. Of the 104 professors listed as tenured, adjunct, visiting, clinical or emeritus faculty on the Law School’s website, eight are black, two are Hispanic and seven are Asian, according to data from the Association of American Law Schools, individual interviews with professors and biographical research conducted by the News.

When Cynthia Liao LAW ’14, who identifies as Asian, came to the Law School last fall, she said she quickly noticed a lack of faculty members of her own racial background.

As the first person in her family to attend law school, Liao said she looked to the faculty for mentorship. But the shortage of professors of color at the Law School, she said, “inhibits her imagination” about her future career prospects in law.

When asked whether she felt she could enter a career in legal academia, she said she found the idea intimidating.

“I know that, theoretically, if I worked really hard and broke barriers, it could happen, but I don’t imagine it would be an easy thing,” Liao said.

Marbre Stahly-Butts LAW ’13, who identifies as black and is the political action chair for the Black Law Students’ Association, said professors could bridge the gap between a student’s background and the legal profession. But professors and students are naturally inclined to approach those who remind them most of themselves, she said.

Lani Guinier LAW ’74, a professor at Harvard Law School who was a visiting faculty member at Yale last fall and identifies as black, said studies conducted at three law schools suggest that many female students as well as students of color are hesitant to approach faculty who do not exhibit clear “friendliness cues.”

“They await a direct invitation or at least a clear signal that they are welcome to come see a professor during office hours or after class,” Guinier said.

Viviane Scott LAW ’14, a student of mixed racial descent who identifies as black, said the number of professors who make efforts to be “proactive mentors” is small throughout the tenured faculty. Finding a minority professor to serve as a mentor is all the more difficult, she said, as there are already relatively few minority professors in the first place.

Scott said she has not yet found a mentor among Yale’s tenured faculty.

HIRING DIVERSITY

Twenty-five years after he graduated, Aragon returned to the Law School to serve on its executive committee, which he said is a group of interested alumni that the dean asks to work with the school on fundraising and boosting alumni involvement in the school. While the student body had become more diverse than it was when he was a student, he said little had changed in the way of faculty diversity.

The Law School had hired an openly homosexual professor, several Asian professors and more African-Americans and women since Aragon’s time, but the school still had a gap in its growing diversity profile: it continued to lack a tenured Hispanic faculty member.

Aragon said he appreciated the increased diversity across several minority groups, but noticed the school still had not given tenure to a Hispanic professor. Aragon took this issue to then-Law School Dean Anthony Kronman GRD ’72 LAW ’75, and said received the same response as he had when broaching the issue with Wellington a quarter of a century earlier — that he should be patient. Aragon said he continued to raise the same questions with Kronman’s successors, Harold Koh and Post, who still serves as dean of the Law School, and all gave the same response.

“I’ve had three successive deans look me straight in the eye and say that this was one of their top priorities,” Aragon said. “I don’t think they were really committed to getting a tenured Hispanic professor — if they were, it would have happened long ago.”

When asked to describe the criteria for hiring new professors, Law School spokeswoman Janet Conroy said the school’s faculty hiring committee seeks candidates with “scholarly excellence no matter the field of expertise.” She added that the school adheres “rigorously” to the University’s non-discrimination policies in its hiring.

Post could not be reached for comment this week.

In a paper presented at the 2009 Conference on Empirical Legal Studies, Ming Zhu, a graduate of Harvard Law School, investigated whether race plays any role in faculty hiring. While her study noted that identification with a minority group increased a candidate’s chance of being hired, this minority status correlated with hires at less prestigious institutions. Zhu’s study also noted that of the top 16 law schools, none had given tenure to a minority professor in the 2004-’05 hiring year, the year the study examined.

Though alumni and students interviewed questioned whether hiring processes at elite law schools might have unintentional biases against minority candidates, deans and chairs of faculty appointment committees at other law schools said the pool of minority legal scholars remains small.

Kevin Johnson, the dean of the University of California, Davis School of Law, said many hiring committees give preference to alumni from a small group of elite institutions, namely Harvard, Stanford and Yale. Because such institutions have historically been less diverse than others, minority alumni are scarce.

In an effort to increase diversity, Mark West, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Michigan Law School, said schools could increase the size of the pools from which they draw candidates. Simply increasing the size of the pool, he said, is bound to increase the number of strong minority scholars considered for positions.

BROADER STRUCTURAL CHANGE?

As Aragon’s frustration with the lack of a tenured Hispanic faculty member at the Law School escalated, he said he stopped donating to the Law School four years ago in an effort to make his frustrations known to the school.

The thought of refusing to donate to their alma mater because of a lack of racial diversity in the faculty has crossed the minds of other Law School alumni.

When Rodriguez taught at Yale three years ago, many students lobbied for her to be offered tenure, said Elisabeth Centeno LAW ’11, who co-chaired the Latino Law Students Association when she was at Yale. She said a student put up a sign-up sheet in a central Law School hallway urging signees to refuse to donate to the school until a Hispanic professor was given tenure. Centeno said the sheet, which she recalled had a heading similar to “Would YLS hire Sonia Sotomayor?”, drew few signatures but was emblematic of broader student frustrations shared by students of color and white students alike.

Centeno said the offer to Rodriguez was “a wonderful thing,” adding that current students had told her about it within an hour after the town hall. She took Rodriguez’s “Immigration Law and Policy” course in 2009 and said Rodriguez was one of the two best professors she had at Yale.

Still, while all students interviewed said they were happy with the Law School’s offer of tenure to Rodriguez, they expressed concern that the Law School might not continue to build faculty diversity if she accepts.

“Just because you have a black person doesn’t mean you have enough black people,” Stahly-Butts said. “Just because you have a Latino face, doesn’t mean you have enough perspectives.”

Roberto Saldaña LAW ’14, who identifies as Latino and said he was happy a Hispanic woman was given an offer of tenure, said the offer was not necessarily a sign of “broader structural change,” which he said many are looking for. He said such disciplines as critical race theory, which examines race and racism from a legal perspective, continue to be underrepresented in the faculty’s academic interests. Saldaña and Stahly-Butts both said they hope Rodriguez will accept the Law School’s tenure offer.

One source who attended the town hall meeting said the faculty hiring committee announced at the meeting that it currently has five standing offers of tenure, three of which are to women and two of which are to people of color. Conroy, the Law School spokeswoman, declined to comment on current hiring offers.

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