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5 steps law school deans can take to improve diversity and inclusion

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Leonard M. Baynes

Leonard M. Baynes, dean of the University of Houston Law Center.

The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor have highlighted to the world that systemic racism exists. It has caused many law schools, law firms and other legal employers to grapple with how to foster more diversity and inclusion as well as what it means to be antiracist.

I want to focus on what a law school dean can do, summarizing my remarks given on Sept. 25 at the Dean’s Dialogue, convened by the Law School Admission Council and the Association of American Law Schools.

I am the first Black dean of University of Houston Law Center. In my legal career, I have often been the first or one of a few people of color to hold certain prestigious legal positions. For many people like me, our institutions have often either formally or informally tasked us to take on the role of diversity champion. I have taught classes on race/racism and the law, I have led diversity workshops, and I have initiated pipeline programs for students and faculty of diverse backgrounds.

In doing this work, in my experience, the first step to being more inclusive is to recognize that we may all have implicit biases. They may be in the deep recesses of our subconsciousness, but if we’ve grown up in the U.S., we have been bombarded with racial stereotypes and memes through media, political rhetoric and even in the study of our history. These beliefs shape our beliefs and actions.

Our nation is in crisis. There have been massive and sustained street protests after the tragic police killings of unarmed Black people. Every few days, there seems to be another report of a similar incident. Meanwhile, Black and Latinx Americans are more likely to be infected and die from COVID-19 than whites.

But the issue runs deeper than these recent situations. There is still a persistent income and wealth gap between Blacks and whites in the United States; African Americans still attend segregated schools; there is significant underrepresentation of lawyers of color in law firm associate, partner and prosecutor positions. There also are several premier law firms that still have no Black equity partners.

According to a report from Citigroup, systemic racism in the U.S. has had a huge cost to the economy: $16 trillion over the past two decades. That’s the total cost of inequities in salaries, education, investment in black-owned businesses and housing. It “has a real and tangible impact on our country’s economic output,” said Raymond J. McGuire, vice chairman of Citigroup and Chairman of Banking, Capital Markets and Advisory at Citi.

Similarly, a 2019 McKinsey study determined that this racial wealth gap has reduced the nation’s overall wealth. If the racial wealth gap were closed, the study estimated that the nation’s GDP would be 6% higher by 2028.

To give a specific example of what leaders should not say when it comes to racial diversity, I would cite Wells Fargo CEO Charlie Scharf, who was recently asked about the lack of diversity in senior leadership ranks at his company. He answered: “While it might sound like an excuse, the unfortunate reality is that there is a very limited pool of Black talent to recruit from with this specific experience as our industry does not have enough diversity in most senior roles,” Scharf said in a June memo.

He was implicitly telling his Black Wells Fargo employees that their talent was “limited,” causing great consternation among their ranks. The prominent civil rights leader Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, disagreed, stating that she knew many talented Black lawyers in the financial services industry.

Scharf later retracted his statement, apologizing for making an insensitive comment “reflecting [his] own unconscious bias.” “It’s clear to me that, across the industry, we have not done enough to improve diversity, especially at senior leadership levels,” Scharf said. “And there is no question Wells Fargo has to make meaningful progress to increase diverse representation.”

Although African Americans comprise approximately 13% of the U.S. population, they make up only 5% of all lawyers; moreover, the percentage of Black law school students is below 8%. At many law schools, the percentage of underrepresented students, faculty and staff—especially African Americans—is very low.

If I were to ask my decanal colleagues, “Why don’t you have more diversity in your ranks?” Would you initially answer like Mr. Scharf and say that it is a result of a lack of talent? If that is your honest answer, please ask yourself these additional questions:

• Why is that a satisfactory answer?

• Why do I think there are so few talented candidates?

• What does talent mean?

• Why am I not doing something about it?

• Why am I not outraged in 2020—160 years after the start of the Civil War, almost 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education, almost 60 years after the passage of the Civil Rights legislation—that there are not enough talented people of color?

As law school deans, we have an obligation to do more than to say there is no talent. We have an obligation to treat the racism that members of our community face with the same degree of seriousness as we have the pandemic and the economic downturn.

Faculty and staff have bent over backward to do the right thing—to make the right choices; to do the least harm in preparing for the pandemic and coping with the economic downturn. We need to have the same degree of commitment and attention to the racial threats and ill treatment that diverse members of our community face each day. Leadership starts at the top. As dean, you establish the vision that others will follow.

Here are practical steps that you can follow:

1. Share your vision of diversity and inclusion, and others will follow without you having to take any specific action.

Your vision can consist of specific action items in your strategic plan. It can be discussed as an objective at faculty meetings as well as meetings with alumni and student organizations. You need to say it often enough until it becomes ingrained in the fabric of the institution.

The Houston Law Review has had a very diverse membership. It often has multiple Asian American and Latinx student members. Over the past 20 years, it has had 10 Black members. More recently, it has had three Black members at one time. It recently announced that they published authors who were almost 50% women and 35% people of color.

Faculty plan scholarly and judicial lecture series with diverse presenters who are women and people of color, making sure that it is not just token representation.

2. Celebrate racial and ethnic holidays.

For each racial/ethnic/gender celebratory month, I write a Dean’s Note to alumni, faculty, staff and students highlighting alumni pioneers for Black History Month, Latinx Heritage Month, Asian American History Month and Women’s History Month. For the past two years, we have been identifying individuals in these categories who were the first or those who have held noteworthy positions. Each note is accompanied with a lengthy PowerPoint highlighting these illustrious alumni. The alumni appreciate it and want to be included in the list.

3. With pipeline programs, you can create your own diverse pool of talent of students.

UH Law Center has the UHLC PreLaw Pipeline Program for college students from low-income, first-generation and underrepresented backgrounds who are interested in attending law school. Students who participate in the program, on average, increase LSAT scores by 10-14 points and earn millions of dollars in scholarship funds.

4. With visiting professor programs, you can create your own diverse pool of faculty.

When I was a faculty member at a previous law school, we had a visiting professorship program that targeted talented lawyers who spent two years with us, teaching law school courses while working on the legal scholarly production. Three of the individuals who participated in these programs became academics and tenured at their institutions, including my prior institution. These programs are vital to level the playing field because it is difficult for talented lawyers—especially those of color—who have not participated in academic teaching incubator-type programs, to effectively compete in law faculty searches. Moreover, many of the established incubator programs are not diverse enough.

5. Faculty and students need to know how to discuss these complex issues of diversity in a comprehensive and complex way.

At UH Law, we do diversity and inclusion training for all first-year students. We’re in the process of planning to do similar training for upper-level students. We have also had trainers discuss implicit bias with faculty and staff.

I would like us to imagine a world in which there is no racism, but that will require effort every day on all our parts. We should create a world in which the ABA standards require each law school to establish its own pipeline programs for students and faculty. Imagine what a difference that would make, so that a law school would have ready access to a talented pool.

We need to treat racial injustice like we care. We need to treat it like it matters. And it is important that our law schools, like all ranks of society, reflect and celebrate the rich diversity of our communities.

Leonard M. Baynes is the dean of the University of Houston Law Center and has a national reputation as a communications, business and diversity law scholar. In 2010, he received the Diversity Trailblazer Award from the New York State Bar Association; in 2019, he was named a diversity champion by the National Diversity Council; and in 2020, Baynes was named to the Lawyers of Color Power List by the Lawyers of Color Foundation. Baynes received his bachelor of science degree from New York University his and JD and master of business administration from Columbia University. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

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