Law School Administration Holds Town Hall to Answer Student Questions on School Climate, Whip Sheet

The Law Student Association has been told it cannot defund the Edmund Burke Society due to the University’s commitment to freedom of expression.


By Caroline Kubzansky, Managing Editor ('20-'21)

The Law School hosted a town hall on Thursday for students to ask questions of Law School and University administrators regarding the official reaction to the Edmund Burke Society’s controversial whip sheet on immigration, which many construed as insensitive or racist.

Law School dean Thomas Miles opened the meeting with a short set of remarks before inviting students to ask questions or offer their perspectives and proposals. Dean of Students in the University Michele Rasmussen, Law School Dean of Students Shannon Bartlett, and Deputy Dean Daniel Abebe were also present to help answer questions.

The town hall was the second this week, coming on the heels of the Monday gathering coordinated by the Law Students Association (LSA) so that students could ask questions of LSA and express their feelings and reactions to the whip sheet.

Miles expressed his pride in the law students’ performance at the LSA town hall, and said it was a learning experience for him and many faculty and administrators.

“Everyone who spoke spoke in a way that was heartfelt and in a way that took courage. We are proud of you for the town hall on Monday,” he said. “We heard accounts of student conduct that disturb us greatly. It seems clear we have lost [a defining feature of our culture], and we must recover it.”

Miles made clear that the Law School is not the same institution, culturally, as the school he and others had known as students.

“It upsets me enormously that our students are experiencing this rather than the positive experience I had at this university. It is clear that our students are hurt, frustrated, angry, and disappointed,” Miles said. “I’ve also heard from many alumni, who are deeply upset about what has happened to their law school.”

Since Monday, the Law School has told LSA that it cannot determine the allocation of their funding to student groups on a content basis—in other words, LSA may not pull its funding from the Burke Society.

Miles cited the Kalven Report in his outline of wider University policy and emphasized that pulling funding based on the content of any student group would be a violation of the report’s principles.

“I leave it to LSA to decide how to fund groups…but that said, just like the Law School is subject to University policy, so is LSA,” said Bartlett. “The LSA has lots of discretion to [act] as it sees fit, but must comply with University policy. Initial budgeting decisions must be made on content neutral bases.”

Rasmussen mentioned several other ways in which a student organization promoting views widely considered to be problematic might be prohibited from operating on campus.

“There are ways to make freedom of expression compatible with the kind of environment you want to see from the Law School,” Rasmussen said. “I think that there are some criteria that could be put into place that don’t run counter to the University’s free expression values but could establish some criteria for RSO’s."

Among these, she said, were requirements for finding a faculty sponsor and for every RSO be open to everybody.

Many audience questions asked why the Law School had not done more to promote the law as it related to marginalized people, or why there is not more work being done to improve the Law School’s atmosphere for people of color.

One student, who also spoke in Monday’s town hall, reiterated his isolating experience as a black law student and asked why the Law School did not do more to teach diversity for students who, as lawyers, will eventually advocate for such ideas of justice to people in power.

“No one can even recognize why it might be reasonable for someone who grew up on the South Side of Chicago to be afraid of police officers. People still look at me and are afraid of me. 5.6 percent of us…have to come to this school every day and help you and our classmates realize their racism,” he said.

One student said that she was unsure how she could promote the Law School’s community as welcoming, given her experience interacting with her peers.

“As a [first-year law student], I found myself trying to engage with my classmates. The more that I saw we weren’t meeting each other at the same assumptions and baselines, the more I began to check out…and feel like this institution wasn’t made for [me]. I think it’s a bit disingenuous to promote diversity and inclusion,” she said.

Another echoed her sentiments, specifically regarding prospective students.

“I’m not sure I could look a prospie in the eye and advocate the welcoming community I saw during admitted students weekend,” she said.

Miles responded with a plea to law students to work with him and administrators to improve the law school.

“We make mistakes…then we try again. We try to redeem ourselves by doing better. We have to allow ourselves and our peers the opportunity for growth. An apology has been extended…so I hope you’ll join me, your faculty, and your peers in moving the Law School forward.”