Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Is the Law School's Diversity Pledge Enforceable? (And Other Related Queries)

Last year, a colleague of ours (who happens to be on the prestigious Va. L. Rev.) told us that he wasn't going to sign the diversity pledge because, while he agreed that "acts" of prejudice had no place in the UVA Law community, he wasn't totally keen on banning "thoughts" of prejudice.

Here is the pledge:

2009 Diversity Pledge

As a community, we believe that....

Every person has worth as an individual. Every person is entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of class, color, disability, gender, nationality, race, or sexual orientation. Thoughts and acts of prejudice have no place in the UVA Law community.

Therefore, we pledge...

To treat all people with dignity and respect, to discourage others' prejudice in all its forms, and to strive to maintain a climate for work and learning based on mutual respect and understanding;

And from this day forward,

Knowing that both the UVA Law community and the world will be a better place because of our efforts, we will incorporate this pledge into our daily lives.

We, thought, hmmm, OK - well surely this person was speaking mostly tongue-in-cheek, after all no one considers the pledge to be an enforceable contract (quick, 1Ls!), do they? No one would actually even suggest seriously that the diversity pledge was some form of liberal-thought control. Well, we were wrong. "Phi Beta Cons", an organ of the conservative National Review that focuses on "The Right Take on Higher Ed" (roflcopter - get it??), had this to say:
At the University of Virginia's law school, the Student Bar Association is encouraging students to sign the "2009 Diversity Pledge." The first 500 students even get a free T-shirt.

The pledge is not enforceable as of yet. It reminds me, however, of the work that FIRE is doing to combat campus speech codes. I have pasted the Diversity Pledge after the jump.
As of yet? [* * WATCH THIS SPACE FOR UPDATES ON THE ADMINISTRATION'S EFFORTS TO ENFORCE THE DIVERSITY PLEDGE * * - eds]. Thankfully that's about all the writer said. In case you are wondering "FIRE" stands for "Foundation for Individual Rights Education," an organization whose mission (according to Wikipedia) is to "to defend and sustain individual rights at America's colleges and universities," including the rights to "freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience--the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity." Wuh-oh, call Mr. Jefferson and the First Amendment police, my individual right to freedom of speech are being infringed upon by those fascists at the table in Hunton-Williams with their felt-tipped markers and free t-shirts!! A possibly related point of interest, the writer of that post also criticized UVA's canceling of classes for the inauguration, kind of like most of you.

Anyway, storied law-ologist Eugene Volokh, whose blawg rivals this one in popularity, had this to say:

Some, I suppose, will find it threatening; I find it vapid. At some very high level of generality, almost every decent person agrees with the notion that "Every person is entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of class, color, disability, gender, nationality, race, or sexual orientation." For instance, even many people who believe that homosexuality is wrong believe that people who are attracted to members of the same sex are entitled to dignity and respect — they just think that those people shouldn't engage in homosexual conduct.

The trouble is that the dispute is chiefly about what constitutes "prejudice," and what the obligation "[t]o treat all people with dignity and respect" means. If "prejudice in all its forms" means irrational hostility, then again this is banal to the point of irrelevance: Few people support irrational hostility. If "prejudice in all its forms" means all differences in treatment, then few people would condemn such a broad category of behavior; to do so, they'd have to oppose all race- and sex-based affirmative action, all immigration restrictions (since those discriminate based on not being an American national), all exclusions — no matter how justified by the demands of the task — based on disability, and so on. The same would be true if "prejudice in all its forms" covers all generalizations and preconceptions based on the attributes, however tentative. How many rational people would (or should) have no preconceptions about the possible dangerousness of a passerby on a dark street based on whether the passerby is a man or a woman? How many rational people would (or should) have no preconceptions about whether a blind person should drive a school bus? And these are just some of the most obvious examples.

. . .

So this is all a long way of saying that the diversity pledge strikes me as quite empty of any intellectual value — it's a form of political posturing rather than serious engagement with the actual controversies and problems that modern law schools face. And I suspect that it's also quite empty of any political or community norm-setting value, partly for the reasons I mention above and partly because it would so clearly be understood as political posturing.

Empty of intellectual value? Political posturing?? Also empty of any political or community norm-setting value??? Mr. Volokh, my friend, there are plenty of people in this state and this country who believe that homosexuals not only should not "engage in homosexual conduct," but also do not even deserve dignity and respect. Ditto for many of the other categories on there. As silly and politically empty (and unenforceable!!) as the diversity pledge may be, if someone wants to put his or her name on a piece of paper to say that sort of thing is not cool, I support them.

That's our take anyway, but feel free to disagree (comments). A lot of people have already commented on Volokh's post. Any conservativ-er's want to pick up the other side? Let us know.

Related:

Students, Faculty Show Support for Third Annual Diversity Pledge [Virginia Law]

22 comments:

t-pain said...

TL, DR

Anonymous said...

I totally agree, though I alo think that "thoughts" should be removed.

Anonymous said...

I have a few problems with the pledge. First, I think its insulting, because -- especially for those who know the history behind the pledge -- its almost us admitting that we have a problem with prejudice and use this token pledge to say "Hey look at us, we're doing something about it." And B., what's the point? The people who sign the pledge aren't the problem. The pledge isn't going to affect anyones opinions. We need to do things like celebrate diversity and showcase it, maybe through a series of events highlighting other cultures through food, dance, etc etc.

ALRM said...

I signed the pledge because I think that it is a nice sentiment and doesn't really hurt anything (and who can pass up a free T-shirt). My problem with it, however, is its superficiality (is that even a word)? Why do we care about diversity of skin color or diversity of who you choose sleep with? How does that add to the law school community? It adds to the community because it creates an atmosphere where a variety of perspectives and ideas can flourish and we can all learn from each other. My problem is not with diversity; it is with diversity based only on the way that we look or act. For example, I found it curious that there was no mention of religion in the diversity pledge. Given the persecution of people because of their religious background throughout history, it seems like people of faith belong on the list. Why no mention of diversity of political views or ideologies? That kind of diversity is probably more important than anything else at a place of higher education. I agree with one of the posters on another board. We should Jefferson's motto as our diversity pledge: "I have sworn eternal hostility to all forms of tyranny over the mind of man."

ALRM said...

I signed the pledge because I think that it is a nice sentiment and doesn't really hurt anything (and who can pass up a free T-shirt). My problem with it, however, is its superficiality (is that even a word)? Why do we care about diversity of skin color or diversity of who you choose sleep with? How does that add to the law school community? It adds to the community because it creates an atmosphere where a variety of perspectives and ideas can flourish and we can all learn from each other. My problem is not with diversity; it is with diversity based only on the way that we look or act. For example, I found it curious that there was no mention of religion in the diversity pledge. Given the persecution of people because of their religious background throughout history, it seems like people of faith belong on the list. Why no mention of diversity of political views or ideologies? That kind of diversity is probably more important than anything else at a place of higher education. I agree with one of the posters on another board. We should use Jefferson's motto as our diversity pledge next year: "I have sworn eternal hostility to all forms of tyranny over the mind of man."

Anonymous said...

UVa does have a problem with prejudice. This is far and away the one school in the top 10 where a black student or a gay student would feel LEAST comfortable. I think the pledge at least acknowledges that and says many students disagree with that approach

A girl 1980 said...

In response to 12:22 AM. First, you are up very late! Second, yes, singing a pledge isn't doing much. But what else are we going to do? (This logic seems to be working quite well for Obama. Hey, the stimulus package might not work, but we've GOT to do SOMETHING - ANYTHING!!!!) Third, the people who sign are not the problem - true. But, all the people who DO sign send a message to people who would be the targets of bigotry that this school and community supports them, that they can at least take comfort in the fact that not everyone thinks they are "f-gs."

Rule 12 (f) said...

I more or less agree with the post above me.

Anonymous said...

Eh, I agree w/ Volokh. Like everything else the SBA's is involved in, the pledge strikes me as being vapid, empty and meaningless.

Anonymous said...

I agree w/ 1980 - "the people who DO sign send a message to people who would be the targets of bigotry that this school and community supports them..." Something is better than nothing. I share the belief that this school has a problem with prejudice. There is a serious dearth of ethnic diversity, a significant gender gap, and a *gaping* gender gap on law review; I wouldn't be surprised if gay students felt less welcome in this environment at all, although clearly it is more difficult to represent this statistically. I'm glad we sign the pledge, but I think that numbers are probably the bottom line here. The nature of the problem may be chicken and egg - fewer minority, female and gay applicants may be interested in UVA as opposed to, say, NYU. It's important for us to actively cultivate an image of a community that celebrates diversity in whatever way we can - for the sake of current and future students.

Anonymous said...

I made this argument in the comments section on Volokh's site. I understand there are some well meaning people involved in this campaign. However, I find it inappropriate for the administration to place its institutional weight behind a vague "pledge" filled with nebulous odes to postmodern aphorisms of questionable social worth. Even if I were more convinced of the merits of the pledge, I still think that it would be ill-advised because it **inevitably** creates an atmosphere whereby individuals might feel (and often do) pressured to adopt the position of the majority and/or the administration. Additionally, my belief is that this pledge exists as a half-hearted measure to accomplish what the school knows it cannot do outright -- namely, institute a speech code of some type. It is ultimately vague and meaningless posturing dressed up as multicultural solidarity

Anonymous said...

Or they realize that the people signing the pledge just want a free t-shirt.

Anonymous said...

I have no problem with using a somewhat vague, non-binding pledge to promote diversity. I have a big problem if it is the only thing used to promote diversity.

Anonymous said...

Amen to 7:39am. The problem is not with the pledge - the problem is the school does practically nothing else to promote diversity in faith, gender, sexual orientation, race, age, etc. Then again, it's not just the school, but the entire profession. "Diversity" is just a buzz word to the vast majority of firms out there.

Anonymous said...

"Thoughts and acts of prejudice have no place in the UVA Law community". Can anyone think of anything more fascistic than the idea that certain thoughts aren't allowed in our community? I don't think the racial guilt complex that riddles most people of our age group should compel us to tolerate such a vacuous pledge.

Anonymous said...

711,

If there's a gender gap and it's greater than the gender gap in the general student population, where do you think the fault lies?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I am a touch slow, but I don't know what 4:48 is getting at (though he or she is obviously saying something quite clever).

As to the issue, perhaps the problem is that so many seats are reserved for Virginians. What are our ethnic percentages like when you only consider the seats made open to the rest of the country?

And I couldn't agree more about homosexuals feeling uncomfortable here. While I cannot speak from experience, I will say, as someone coming to UVA from the north east, I am immensely dissappointed by the ease and comfort with which many students use the words "gay, fag, queer, queermo, homo<" and the like to mean, generally, "bad."

That said, I am also distressed by the generally low level of discourse. When people get into smart mode, everyone here really is quite intelligent. But too often many slip into what could best be described as "crass mode," where every other spoken line either objectifies women or makes fun of some minority.

That last paragraph spoke more to the behavior of male students than female.

Anonymous said...

For the poster criticizing the "gender gap" on Law Review, please note that 1/3 of the new managing board is female (although slightly lower than the school-wide ratio, it's still a great step).

Also, I certainly feel bad for those who do not feel "welcome" or comfortable at UVA. But, also realize that you're not at NYU. My personal belief (to which I ask no one to ascribe) is that UVA is much more of an accepting community than people give it credit for. That said, it is far from perfect. Nevertheless, I think that even right-leaning students are very accepting, in general.

Anonymous said...

To the last poster:

what do you mean by "realize that your not at NYU?"

It seems to me you are either saying that that UVA is not as accepting as NYU, or is not as weird as NYU. Which do you mean? Or am I misreading this entirely?

Anonymous said...

I just meant that you're not at a school that is naturally going to draw high percentages of people who would be considered "diverse" and who view celebrating diversity as a primary activity.

Anonymous said...

That's interesting. Is that a problem? What if UVA simply isn't a diverse place? Obviously biggotry is bad, but say it's just a white guy school. Women know that, as do minorities. They are welcome, but they should know coming in that there desire for diversity and multicultural activity will, largely, be met with a lack of enthusiasm (as compared to other schools).

I, personally, think this is a flaw and not merely a neutral trait. Maybe others disagree.

Anonymous said...

Last!