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2020 Anti-Racism Steering Committee Report

Belonging at VLS

This concept captures the strong shared desire to have a student, faculty, and staff community in which every member, including those who are Black or other persons of color, knows and feels that they are valued and fully belong. In such a community, all are called to examine our own biases, provided room to grow and the tools with which to grow, and entrusted with building the collective and individual success of all. A VLS community of belonging models and helps create the inclusive, equitable legal community needed to create a fairer and more equal society.

We believe that the following are important steps toward fostering such belonging.

Learning opportunities to enhance equity, diversity, and inclusion within VLS

  • Develop a comprehensive program of intentional, high-quality, regular learning opportunities to ensure that all members of the VLS community—faculty, staff, and students—know of the VLS commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion, and are equipped with the knowledge, insight, and tools to enact that commitment on the personal and institutional levels. In developing such a program, we encourage VLS to take a broad view of diversity but to keep race and racism firmly in focus. We also encourage VLS to carefully consider which elements of such a program should be mandatory, which incentivized (and by what mechanisms), and which discretionary. Further, some elements may be short-term and relatively resource-light, such as those that are a component of initial student orientations and faculty and staff onboarding, while others may require higher-resource investments over time, such as multi-session courses, workshops, or discussion groups to examine biases and how to work against them. Finally, we encourage VLS to consider which aspects of such a program can and should be developed internally, and which would benefit from collaboration with outside organizations and content providers.

Such a program should, at a minimum, include the following:

  • Inclusion of equity, diversity, and inclusion content in 1L and LLM orientation, delivered in a manner that adequately conveys the importance of that content. Some such content will be provided to the incoming classes of Fall 2020. Going forward, such content should include both implicit bias awareness and a strong communication of community norms.
  • Creation of similar learning opportunities for all leaders of student organizations, members of the 2L and 3L classes, staff, and faculty, starting in the 2020-21 academic year.

Connection with mentors and peers

  • Meaningfully expand mentorship mechanisms for BIPOC faculty, staff, and students. Such mechanisms, which can overcome a sense of isolation and foster personal and professional growth, might productively include the following:
    • Developing community- and alumni-based mentorship opportunities to connect students of color with successful role models outside of VLS.
    • Connecting incoming 1Ls of color with VLS student and faculty mentors, preferably as soon as they commit to attend.
    • Providing staff of color with opportunities to connect with peers and mentors in the broader University community, to overcome a sense of isolation.
    • Investing in mechanisms for faculty of color to connect with peers and mentors in the broader University community and beyond.
    • Continue to invest in mechanisms to better integrate students in the JD and LLM programs, both academically and socially.
    • Explore and concretely support creative ways in which to foster connection, learning, and support across student organizations and affinity groups.

Awards and compensation

  • Review the available roster of staff awards and the processes by which awardees are selected. Such a review, which should include those awarded both by the administration and by student groups such as VBA, should take into account the fact that awards that rely on voting may systematically favor staff members with highly visible, student-interactive jobs. Achievement-based awards may systematically favor staff who have positions with production-oriented jobs with clear outcome metrics. The review should also include consideration of creating an award for a staff member who embodies and promotes the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion at VLS. 
  • Review the available roster of faculty awards (including Chairs) and the processes by which awardees are selected, within which similar considerations may be at play, including the potential of biases reflected in student voting. Consider creating awards and other forms of recognition for faculty members who embody and promote the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion at VLS.
  • Review faculty and staff compensation to identify any racial and gender disparities and develop a plan to remedy any such disparities.

Honoring persons of color

  • Evaluate the visual environment of VLS, and especially the art on the walls, to reinforce our commitment to a diverse community. We acknowledge the new permanent exhibition of Vanderbilt Pioneers as one step in that direction, but far more diversity in the visual environment—particularly artistic and documentary depictions of persons of color—is called for.
  • Evaluate the extent to which VLS naming practices reflect our institutional commitments to diversity and racial justice and develop a plan to bring those practices and commitments closer together.
  • Take steps to ensure that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is appropriately honored, starting in the 2020-21 academic year. Various options should be considered, taking into account the ABA accreditation rules that set fixed minima of instructional hours, and considering the option of encouraging faculty to focus on issues of race and racial justice in any make-up classes that might be required by those accreditation rules. At a minimum, an appropriate honoring of MLK Day includes clearer messaging of VLS policies around classes whose normal schedule falls on MLK Day. Further, events celebrating MLK Day should, if possible, occur before that day to highlight its prominence.
  • Dialogue with University leaders about the option of adding additional paid, no-classes holidays to the University year, including Juneteenth and Election Day. VLS may also explore the option of allowing staff to take off those days without loss of pay or reprisal.

Building diverse career awareness and pathways

  • Because we are a professional school, the ways in which VLS shapes students’ concepts of career possibilities and how to achieve them send powerful messages about belonging—belonging at VLS, but also in the legal profession. We therefore recommend that VLS comprehensively evaluate its practices and outcomes with regard to career education and support in order to identify areas of strength and opportunities for growth in helping all students, particularly BIPOC students, imagine and achieve their career goals. We further recommend that this evaluation be used as the basis for the development of an action plan to meaningfully enhance the capacity of VLS to better achieve that goal.
    • This evaluative and planning process should be informed by the reality that the marginalization of law students and attorneys of color is a persistent feature of the legal profession, including its recruitment and hiring markets.  The action plan should identify concrete steps VLS will take to ensure we do not inadvertently perpetuate these inequalities but instead are helping students overcome systemic barriers to pursuing careers of their choice.
    • The action plan should also identify concrete steps VLS will take to enhance the information and support all students receive regarding legal careers that include an anti-discriminatory or racial justice focus, particularly in the public and public-interest sectors. 
    • The following issues and options should be considered in conducting the evaluation and developing the corresponding action plan:
      • Communicating with BIPOC alumni to learn of their perspectives on how VLS prepared them to imagine and achieve their career goals.
      • Messaging around legal recruiters’ obligations to abide by VLS’ diversity, inclusion, and anti-discrimination policies.
      • Ensuring that all students are aware of mechanisms for reporting and responding to inappropriate actions, particularly those that reflect racial or cultural insensitivity, by legal recruiters.
      • Expanding legal recruiting opportunities to Black or minority owned or operated law firms and firms with a strong record of commitment to diversity.
      • Strengthening VLS’ institutional supports for student participation in diversity-oriented job fairs, programs, and events.
      • Enhancing the frequency and prominence with which career  programming (particularly in the first year) addresses issues of race in the legal profession; highlights opportunities for pursuing anti-discriminatory and racial justice work through one’s legal career; and presents positive examples of attorneys of color and attorneys who use their careers to pursue justice.
      • Examining the relationship between, institutional charges of, and levels of funding and support for, Career Services and the Public Interest Office, with the objective of better ensuring that the full range of possible legal careers receives appropriate visibility and institutional backing.
      • Cultivating donors to underwrite expanded opportunities for all students to gain experience in public sector and public interest legal work, both while they are at VLS and after graduation.
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