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’All In at Penn State Law’ examines bias in legal education

“When students see a mixed group of people teaching them from the podium or interacting with them in the lunch room, when faculty candidates see a mixed group of people on the hiring committee, that tells them something fundamentally important about the character of a law school.”
Penn State Associate Professor of Education Erica Frankenberg, Penn State Law student Shushan Sadjadi, and Penn State Law professor Dara Purvis discuss issues of diversity and bias.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Tackling complex and interrelated issues of gender, ethnicity, and bias, a distinguished panel at Penn State Law addressed how bias shapes legal education and how this affects law students, professors, and the legal profession.

“Addressing diversity and implicit bias in the legal academy is critical,” said Penn State Law professor and moderator Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia in her greetings to the audience. “When students see a mixed group of people teaching them from the podium or interacting with them in the lunch room, when faculty candidates see a mixed group of people on the hiring committee, that tells them something fundamentally important about the character of a law school.”

The discussion—“All In at Penn State Law: Addressing Diversity and Implicit Bias in the Legal Academy,” held on March 16—included input from Penn State Law professor and feminist legal theory scholar Dara Purvis, Penn State professor of law and international affairs and globalization scholar Larry Catá Backer, Penn State Law student and former educator Shushan Sadjadi, and Penn State associate professor of education and demography scholar Erica Frankenberg.

This event was part of Penn State's All In initiative, launched to spotlight the importance of diversity at Penn State, demonstrate the University’s commitment to inclusivity and inspire all members of the community to take an active role in promoting respect and embracing diversity.

Purvis began the conversation by describing the way in which the notion of the “ideal law student” is heavily influenced by the law’s history as a male-dominated field, and how this gendered approach to legal education presents challenges for female students. Citing studies showing female students report less pride in their accomplishments and greater risk for symptoms of depression than their male counterparts, Purvis argued that the mold for success in the legal profession must evolve to better support students from different backgrounds.

“All students are affected by the hegemonic nature of legal education, as we could just as easily talk about the challenges faced by nonwhite or non-heterosexual or gender-nonconforming students,” she said. “This affects and harms even those who supposedly ‘fit in.’”

Sadjadi—who “identifies as a half-Iranian, half-American lesbian” and serves as the president of OUTLaw, Penn State Law’s LGBTQ student organization—spoke about her experiences as both a teacher and a minority law student. She described how striking it was teaching in different environments, having started her career teaching in Harlem before later teaching in a predominately white, upper-class school in Silicon Valley, where a student asked her if she’d had any experience teaching black students before.

“Once I moved to the administrative level, I began to see that many policies in education are problematic in and of themselves,” she said, which prompted her to attend law school with the goal of working in education policy reform. “Now, here at Penn State, I feel fortunate to study at a place that truly values diversity, even when U.S. News rankings and many other law schools do not.”

Frankenberg next discussed the benefits of diverse educational environments, the harm to students from non-diverse educational experiences, and how public schools begin to racially stratify very early on in a child’s life. Even at the pre-K level, Frankenberg cited data showing many classrooms are already beginning to skew toward racial homogeneity, which grows more pronounced at each grade level. By the time a student reaches the undergraduate or graduate level, fewer minority students are still pursuing an education and those who are face additional challenges when compared to non-minority students.

“When we look at trends in higher and graduate education, we see that Black and Latino students get less preparation, and we see racial disparities in matriculation and completion of college degrees,” Frankenberg said. “And five years from now, it’s very possible that these trends may be even more concerning.”

Backer concluded the presentation by comparing diversity approaches from the 2010 report from the American Bar Association on “Diversity in the Legal Profession: The Next Steps,” with that of the 2016 reports and recommendations of the Penn State Joint Diversity Awareness Task Force. In general, he said, law schools and other institutions have focused their diversity promotion efforts on working from the bottom up, rather than by focusing on deans and university administrators and creating concrete metrics for judging success. He spoke about the need to naturalize diversity objectives in the life of the university as an alternative to current approaches. 

“We need to view diversity as a natural component that is brought seamlessly into classes, which is easier said than done,” Backer said. “We still have lots of work to do institutionally, but conversations like this are a start.”

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