Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Koppelman: Yale Law School’s Bullying, Coercive Diversity Leaders


Following up on my previous posts (links below):  Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed:  Yale Law’s Bullying, Coercive Diversity Leaders: How Not To Do Equity Work, by Andrew Koppelman (Northwestern):

Yale Law Logo (2020)The movement for diversity and inclusion has improved people’s lives in many tangible ways. A few days ago at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, where I’m a professor, I went into the men’s restroom and saw that the school had provided tampons and sanitary pads on a shelf there. It made me happy. There are people here who menstruate and identify as male. Their needs matter, and the school now recognizes that.

But in other respects, the diversity and inclusion movement is becoming the enemy of diversity and inclusion, imposing a cookie-cutter orthodoxy and trying to turn thinking human beings into marionettes. An already-notorious recent episode at Yale Law School (disclosure: I’m an alumnus) highlights the problem. It offers lessons in how to, and how not to, manage issues of inclusion.

Trent Colbert, a Yale Law student who belongs to the Native American Law Students Association (he’s part Cherokee) and the conservative Federalist Society, had invited classmates to an event cohosted by both groups. “We will be christening our very own (soon to be) world-renowned Nalsa Trap House … by throwing a Constitution Day Bash in collaboration with FedSoc,” he wrote. The invitation promised “Popeye’s chicken, basic-bitch-American-themed snacks (like apple pie, etc.)” and hard and soft drinks.

It is unsurprising that Colbert did not know all the connotations of “trap house.” The term, which originally referred to crack houses in poor neighborhoods, has, according to Urban Dictionary, “since been abused by high-school students who like to pretend they’re cool by drinking their mom’s beer together and saying they’re part of a ‘traphouse.’” It is one of a huge variety of slang terms from marginalized urban culture that have entered the mainstream, where many people acquire it ignorant of its etymology.

The invitation was almost instantly screenshotted and shared to an online forum for law students. The president of the Black Law Students Association reportedly wrote in the forum, “I guess celebrating whiteness wasn’t enough. Y’all had to upgrade to cosplay/black face.” She also objected to the mixer’s affiliation with the Federalist Society, which she said “has historically supported anti-Black rhetoric.” The school’s Office of Student Affairs received nine discrimination and harassment complaints.

The office quickly summoned Colbert: “We’d like to meet with you to discuss a deeply concerning and problematic incident that was reported to us.” He was wary when he met with Ellen M. Cosgrove, associate dean, and Yaseen Eldik, diversity director, anticipating that some kind of punishment might be imposed upon him. So he recorded it. That recording, as Ruth Marcus, deputy editorial page editor, writes in The Washington Post, “offers an unsettling insight into the hair-trigger and reflexively liberal mind-set of the educational diversity complex.” But more than that, it is a lesson in how to do an important job badly.

In the first place, a coercive summons (which this obviously was) was inappropriate. Colbert’s email could not plausibly have been construed as discrimination or harassment, both of which require identifiable victims. Yale might have invited him to a meeting, but should have made clear at the outset that no sanctions were contemplated and that it was his choice whether to come at all. ...

Then came this disastrous blunder: “The email’s association with FedSoc was very triggering for students that already feel like FedSoc belongs to political affiliations that are oppressive to certain communities through policies. ... That of course obviously includes the LGBTQIA community and black communities and immigrant communities.” (The Federalist Society is one of America’s most influential legal groups, whose members include six U.S. Supreme Court justices.)

This may have truthfully reported how some students feel. But Eldik should have distanced the law school from those feelings. ...

When Colbert hadn’t apologized by that same evening, Eldik and Cosgrove emailed the entire second-year class about the incident. An “invitation was recently circulated containing pejorative and racist language,” the email read. “We condemn this in the strongest possible terms” and “are working on addressing this.” Here mediation has ceased. The law school has taken it upon itself to declare who is right and who is wrong. Colbert was publicly branded as “racist” before his peers. “They sent that out,” he told me, “while they were on the phone with me telling me that there’s no judgment here.”

In a brief follow-up meeting on September 17, which Colbert also recorded, Eldik says, “You’re a law student, and there’s a bar you have to take. So we think it’s really important to give you a 360 view.” This is more menacing than anything that was said the previous day. It suggests that this episode might be brought up to the character and fitness inquiry of a bar admission. ...

People come to the university with radically different narratives about themselves and the world. That generates some mighty intense disagreements. Members of a university need to work together peacefully even when they find one another’s deepest convictions wrong or offensive. It can be valuable to have someone in the administration that students can complain to, whose job it is to detect and de-escalate conflict. (It is obviously difficult for a student to approach a professor to complain about racial insensitivity.) What that administrator must be wary of doing is adopting one side’s narrative and imposing it on everyone. An explanation of why the “trap house” email offended some people was helpful. An official statement pronouncing it “racist” was destructive, as was the semi-official implication that the Federalist Society is oppressive.

ABA Journal, Yale Law School Sought 2L's Apology For 'Trap House' Constitution Day Invitation, Citing 'Triggering Associations':

Did Yale Law School go overboard when it tried to get a 2L to apologize for sending an invitation to a to a “trap house” Constitution Day bash, held in conjunction with the Federalist Society?

Among those weighing in, the answer mostly seems to be yes, although critics see differing harms.

Powerline, Getting Minds Right at Yale: In Their Own Words:

I asked second-year Yale Law School student Trent Colbert for copies of the documents that are quoted in the stories on his “get your mind right” experience with the school authorities. Trent kindly provided screenshots of the documents. I have typed them out below:

Powerline, Getting Minds Right at Yale, Cont'd

Prior TaxProf Blog coverage:

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