Wow. This is not the kind of story update we like to write here at Above the Law. When something upsetting and dehumanizing happens at a law school, what you want to see is an administration that’s responsive to its student body, listening to its concerns, and working together to make the educational experience better.
But sometimes you see a law school’s administration action acting like a nervous PR flack, ignoring requests for comment and what students are saying in order to project a slick image of an elite institution without any issues.
Last month, we told you about student complaints at the University of Texas School of Law that male students allegedly ranked female classmates based on their attractiveness. Last week, Dean Bobby Chesney sent a email to the UT Law community about the incident.
To the students staff and faculty of Texas law,
I am writing in connection with the rumors about male students in a 1L section ranking the attractiveness of their female classmates.
I take this matter very seriously. The rumored actions implicate our core values of mutual respect and equality for all students, especially in the classroom setting, and they’ve given rise to a great deal of concern and in and outside our community.
We have pursued this matter rigorously and in compliance with the procedures required by the University. But I am now authorized to share with our community that, as of this moment, no one has come forward with any evidence that the rumored actions actually occurred. If you have such evidence, the procedure for disclosing this to the Title IX office is available here.
I will close by emphasizing that mutual respect, fairness, and the equality of all students are core values of our community. Let us treat one another with grace and dignity, always.
That… leaves a lot to be desired. Listen, this isn’t the first time a law school has dealt with students ranking their classmates by attractiveness. So we know there’s a better reaction out there. A strong statement about why the action is degrading and wildly unprofessional — something that frankly feels basic for, you know, a professional school. Perhaps a town hall meeting where students express how the incident made them feel, and then contextualizing the incident in terms of the ongoing issue of sexual harassment and gender inequality in the profession. There are actually many options for an administration that wants to make sure students are heard and that they’re creating an environment where this sort of behavior doesn’t flourish.
But Chesney’s statement — almost a month in the making — is none of these. It’s a cold statement that spends more time on proper forms of evidence than on how students feel (documented on this student-run website) about what happened. If the law school doesn’t think there’s actionable evidence to pursue disciplinary action against student(s), fine. But don’t sweep it under the rug and act like the experience your students are actually going through isn’t real.
A letter in response to the dean’s email is making its way through the UT Law community. The letter calls out the problematic way the concerns about the hot or not ranking were handled by the administration and also notes the echoes in the email to the cultural phenomenon that when reporting harassment — or worse — women’s stories are not believed.
Dean Chesney’s statement that no one has come forward with “evidence that the rumored actions actually occurred” is not only untrue, but it adds to the perception that women at UT Law are not taken seriously and will not be believed or supported when they do come forward. The Dean’s response appears to give cover to improper conduct and only serves to highlight what is glaringly missing from the administration’s response–care for the women of UT Law.
The letter continues, putting the ranking in the backdrop of larger gender inequities. It also calls the administration to task for dragging their heels on responding to the incident at all.
This incident and the manner in which it was handled only add to the oppressive, racist, misogynistic environment that the women of UT Law walk through every day. To many of us, it feels like you only responded because the outside world took notice. Is Above the Law where we need to take our concerns to have them addressed?
The list is a blip. It’s part of a bigger story that includes the meetings that happen before class registration to see which professors will make us feel safe, or not. The preferential treatment male classmates often receive. The power, salary, and prestige imbalance between our male and female faculty members. All the white, male framed faces that cover our walls. The dehumanizing class discussions that some professors allow to persist under the guise of “diversity of thought.” The sexual assault and harassment we face. Add the list to the list of things that we are not convinced this administration has any real awareness of or is equipped to respond to.
You can, and must, do better. Talk with the women of UT Law more and your general counsel and communications teams less. Forget about what Above the Law is going to say and think about what would actually make a difference for the women in this community. What does the team of female associate deans have to say?
Maybe the law school *should* think just a bit about what Above the Law is going to say, because this email from the dean leaves us unimpressed. Actually doing something to make the law school experience better for your students, that’s what gets our attention (in a good way).
Kathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, host of The Jabot podcast, and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. AtL tipsters are the best, so please connect with her. Feel free to email her with any tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter @Kathryn1 or Mastodon @Kathryn1@mastodon.social.