Law Schools

Law dean reveals retirement was due to 'slaveholder' comment; remark followed tenure controversy

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A law dean has revealed that her Jan. 19 retirement announcement was precipitated by her reference to herself as a “slaveholder” during a faculty meeting.

Dean Mary Lu Bilek of the City University of New York School of Law told the law school community in a March 20 email that she made the remark to place blame on herself for racial inequities at the school.

“I thoughtlessly referred to myself as the ‘slaveholder’ who should be held responsible,” she wrote.

Bilek, who is white, plans to leave her position in June.

The New York Law Journal’s stories on the controversy (here and here) supply the backstory and indicate that faculty members thought that there was an erosion in trust over the tenure controversy that precipitated the remark, as well as for Bilek’s handling of the situation. The publication obtained letters from faculty and students who supplied the details.

The controversy dates back to June 2020, when Bilek suggested in a meeting that a white law professor be granted early tenure, according to the New York Law Journal. The faculty member, Allie Robbins, had recently been promoted to assistant dean for academic affairs. A minority faculty member objected, pointing out that several minority faculty members were ahead of Robbins on the tenure track, and they had been discouraged from seeking early tenure.

Robbins didn’t get tenure. Bilek said she was disappointed in the decision at an October 2020 committee meeting. According to a letter by students obtained by the New York Law Journal, Bilek said: “I am the slaveholder here, not Allie,” and, “If anyone should have to pay reparations, it should be me.” Robbins had not sought early tenure, the students said.

Bilek said in her March 20 email she realized that her comment was wrong “the minute I heard myself say it and couldn’t believe the word had come out of my mouth.”

Committee members in the October meeting couldn’t immediately reveal what Bilek said because of confidentiality rules, according to the New York Law Journal. They eventually obtained clearance to make the disclosure and did so in early December 2020.

In response, 22 minority faculty members wrote to Bilek seeking a public apology by Jan. 19 and calling for creation of a faculty of color caucus with the power to review job vacancy notices and veto chair assignments.

Bilek didn’t apologize or mention the “slaveholder” comment in her Jan. 19 retirement announcement.

Students learned about the controversy at a March 19 meeting with faculty. During the meeting, faculty members said they would make the controversy public. Bilek wrote about the remark in her email the next day.

Bilek is a council member with the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, according to the 2020-2021 ABA Leadership Directory.

She did not immediately respond to an ABA Journal email requesting comment.

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