Diversity and Social Justice at Historically Black Law Schools

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Elisa Chen

Historically Black Law Schools (HBLSs) make up a small minority of this nation’s 200+ law schools. In fact, there are only six HBLSs accredited by the American Bar Association. They are:

Yet, despite the small number of HBLSs, these law schools play a vital role in educating students and bettering our nation’s jurisprudence. They all share unique histories of and missions dedicated to helping underserved students. After all, HBLSs were originally established because black students were excluded from white law schools under the separate-but-equal doctrine. For example, Thurgood Marshall School of Law was specifically created by Texas in response to Sweatt v. Painter, the lawsuit which later set the precedent for Brown v. Board of Education. Today, Thurgood Marshall School of Law remains dedicated to supporting underserved students in the legal profession, viewing itself as an agent of community change that empowers the disenfranchised by preparing lawyers to practice law and shape public policy.

In addition to Thurgood Marshall School of Law, the aforementioned HBLSs are also considered some of the most diverse law schools in the nation. In fact, Florida A&M University Law School has been recognized as the most diverse law school in the United States. HBLSs are also known for inspiring social change. For instance, Southern University Law Center’s mission is “to provide access and opportunity to a diverse group of students from underrepresented racial, ethnic, and socio-economic groups to obtain a high quality legal education… [and] to train a cadre of lawyers equipped with the skills necessary for the practice of law and for positions of leadership in society.”

The University of District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law is another example, as the University is committed to using law for public interest to help those in need. The University of District of Columbia has the largest clinical requirement of any American law school, requiring students to provide more than 700 hours of pro bono legal service, which students often fulfill by helping D.C. residents through direct hands-on work. In recognition of this feat, the U.S. News & World Report ranked the University as number seven in clinical training among all American law schools in 2014.

It is no surprise, then, that HBLSs have been extremely active in recent cases of police brutality involving African Americans. For instance, immediately following the grand juries’ decisions not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, Howard University Law students wrote an open letter urging for social change. Howard University School of Law also chose to aptly celebrate Constitution Day by establishing events centered on “insuring domestic tranquility,” as it relates to “criminal justice” and the “militarization of the police.” Elsewhere, North Carolina Central University law school students gathered in a rally, holding up their hands in support of Brown. Also in attendance was North Carolina Central University law professor and state NAACP Attorney Irving Joyner, who called for greater voter participation and involvement in community outreach programs in honor of Brown’s memory.

Thus, although small in number, HBLSs are extremely important because of their focus on diversity and social justice, something that all law schools in the nation and worldwide can learn from.

Elisa Chen completed her M.S.Ed. in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and was a research assistant at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. She is now a Research Analyst at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Latinos, MSIs, and Financial Aid: Paper Rock Scissors

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Kristan Venegas

Paper

I recently wrote a paper called “Financial aid in Hispanic Serving Institutions: Aligning resources with HSI commitments” to be published in an upcoming New Directions in Higher Education volume edited by Melissa Freeman and Magdalena Martinez. The main research question for the paper was: What does the research tell us about how HSIs organize themselves to support financial aid for Latino students? To answer this question, I reviewed as much literature as I could find on this topic. Most of what I found was sourced through Excelencia in Education (thanks to Deb Santiago and crew!) and described particularly effective programs and services. What were my findings? “HSIs are no further behind, or ahead, than other institutions in terms of the financial aid needs of their student population.” Waa Waa. That’s not a very groundbreaking finding.

Rock

During the 2013-14 academic year, I was selected to serve as an American Council on Education Fellow. Rather than focus on making “strategic leadership connections” at a similar institution, I chose to complete my fellowship at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which is categorically different than my home institution. I appreciate the support from the Rossier School of Education on this decision. I’ve blogged more about the fellowship experience overall at the Pullias Center for Higher Education’s blog: 21st Century Scholar.

As part of the fellowship year, I attended the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education conference. At the conference, I interacted with diversity officers from all over the country. Many of them had responsibility for the MSI-related efforts on their campuses. Meeting these leaders provided another opportunity for me to be a major financial aid nerd and pose the following question: What do MSIs/HSIs actually do to organize themselves to support financial aid for Latino students? If the response to my paper is “Waa Waa,” I would categorize the responses to this question as “Wth??”

I intuited that type of response because when I would ask questions about financial aid partnerships, there would be a pause and moment of consideration. I learned that, really, I was hearing more about basic interactions to get required data to complete MSI applications. It seemed like many of the diversity-related leaders that I spoke to did not have deliberate relationships with financial aid officers. They were not collaborative partners; they were little more than data pals.

Scissors

So now, I want to use my (left-handed) scissors to cut the paper and escape the dulling of the rock. I offer these three recommendations:

  1. Much of what I read about, wrote about, and saw over the last year was that MSIs are offering their services and resources to students in ways that are not systematic or sustainable models to make change for the full campus community. Add-on programs or programs that serve only 100 out of 1000 will not make the kinds of institutional change that MSIs likely need.
  2. There are opportunities to bring more direct aid to students in MSIs. Santiago’s issue brief notes that 102 of the 370 campuses in her study found ways to implement this type of aid. I’m sure there are models that all campuses might be able to follow.
  3. Financial aid officers need to be more included as resources for creative and federally compliant financial aid options in MSIs.

I’m working on efforts to develop fundable, study-able, and implementable ways to move some of these ideas forward. I’ll keep you posted.

Dr. Kristan Venegas is an Associate Professor of Clinical Education and a Research Associate in the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.