Dean’s Statement on Diversity at the Levin College of Law

First Posted: Aug. 11, 2009

As the University of Florida Levin College of Law celebrates its 100-year anniversary and we prepare to begin a new academic year, it is timely for us to reflect on the value of diversity and our college’s efforts to ensure that our college is a supportive and welcoming environment for all.

As with many institutions with long histories, we have grown stronger and better through the lessons we have learned through the heroic efforts of others. It was not until 1958 that the first student of color matriculated at the University of Florida, and this occurred when George H. Starke Jr. enrolled in classes at the College of Law. It was not until 1962 that this College had its first graduate of color. These milestones followed a decade-long, and ultimately unsuccessful, struggle by Virgil Hawkins to enter the law school as its first African-American student. The thousands of students of color who have graduated from both the University and its College of Law in the last half-century–and all of our students–owe much to the tireless efforts of Mr. Hawkins. The civil clinics at the College of Law are named for Virgil Hawkins and a sign in his honor is the first sign one sees after entering the law school campus through the main entrance. A time line and much of this story is told in the program prepared in connection with a symposium organized by and held on September 17, 2008, at the law school celebrating the 50th anniversary of the integration of the University of Florida. Additional information on our history can be found in a program prepared in connection with a celebration of the tenth anniversary of his appointment to the federal bench of one of our most distinguished alumni, the Hon. Stephan A. Mickle, Chief Judge of the United District Court for the Northern District of Florida. In 1965, Judge Mickle became the first African American to earn an undergraduate degree from UF. When he received his law degree from UF in 1970, he was only the second African American to do so.

Thus, the history of the struggle to integrate the University of Florida is part of the vivid memories of many of us. And that is one of the reasons that our commitment to the eradication of unlawful discrimination is so strong. We understand that unless institutions of higher education can successfully deal with issues that arise out of our differences grounded in race, gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, culture, religion, sexual orientation, physical ability, life experience, or something else, there is little reason to hope or expect that society more generally will be able to succeed in dealing with these issues. And within the boundaries of the university, I believe that law schools should be among the academic communities that lead the way in demonstrating not only how to successfully deal with the differences among us, but also to use these differences as opportunities to enhance our understandings of other people, our nation and world, and ultimately ourselves.

We honor and fulfill these values through our actions. Like any responsible institution, we investigate any incidents of alleged discrimination brought to our attention and, while every allegation is not true, if it is we respond appropriately. We stress to our students the importance of a broadly diverse law school community and the responsibilities that accompany being a part of that community, and we do so beginning in the first hours of a first-year student’s opening orientation. We repeat these messages frequently. An example is my own oft-repeated statement on the importance of diversity. Our first-year orientation program involves a community service day for our students, which emphasizes the importance we place as an institution on giving back to others. We frequently reaffirm in our communications to all law school constituencies the importance in the legal profession of respecting the integrity and dignity of all persons, and this occurs in our publications, Web site, orientation sessions, and elsewhere. We have held “town forums” and brown bag luncheons to allow students and others to share their concerns and ask questions when issues challenging our community have arisen. We have organized and supported the work of committees composed of students, staff, and faculty to address issues that are relevant to issues of climate at the college. We have a number of strong student organizations whose missions are oriented toward building a community that includes and supports the success of all individuals, including those who are members of minority groups. The Black Law Students Association and Hispanic Law Students Association are two such groups. We are one of only five law schools in the nation to house a center devoted to the study of race and race relations, and that center’s programs and lectures have helped to further strengthen our focus on these important issues.

We are committed to promoting broad diversity in every aspect of our law school’s operations because such diversity is critical to achieving our educational, research and service mission for the benefit of all students, the state and the nation. Broad diversity means all aspects of an individual, including experience, talents, geographic background, socio-economic background, race, gender and many other characteristics. Some aspects of broad diversity have been easy to achieve, while others, including racial diversity, have been harder. Our efforts have resulted in much progress being made in the recruiting of a highly qualified and diverse student body, faculty, and staff, even as we recognize that there is much more work to be done. In the fall of 2008, 25.4 percent of the entering class consisted of students of color. This is the highest percentage of minority enrollment in a UF law school entering class since the 2000-01 academic year and since the implementation of OneFlorida, which is a Governor’s executive order prohibiting public institutions of higher education in Florida from using race or ethnicity as a factor in admissions decisions. In the fall 2009 semester, 19 percent of the 52.5 tenure-track law faculty will be faculty of color (6 black; 4 Hispanic), the highest percentage in our history. Three of the eight most recent faculty tenure-track appointments are faculty of color.

In 2007, two administrators and one secretary who are African American left the law school in a short period of time for career-enhancing positions with positive recommendations and support from this College; this speaks well of the professional quality of these former colleagues, as well as of the College’s support for career advancement. During the last three years, 10 professional staff positions have been filled with minority staff: our new Associate Dean for Student Affairs (this is a senior law administrative position which reports directly to the dean and is responsible for almost all facets of the College’s student affairs operations); our Associate Director of the Office of Admissions and a new recruiting position in that Office; the second-in-command in the Office of Development and Alumni Affairs; a new professional in the Center for Career Development; the two most recent additions to the Office of Communications; our new Registrar; and two librarians.

As faculty and administrators responsible for training the next generation of the legal profession, it is, in my opinion, incumbent upon us to inspire in our students these core values: respect for the dignity and valuing the rights of each member of our community; expecting honesty, integrity, and fair dealing in our relationships, including, because we are legal professionals, careful assessment of criticism of others and responsible reporting of events around us; the pursuit of excellence in the work of each member of our community; and responsibility and accountability for our actions and conduct. In addition, as legal professionals we are expected to deal responsibly with conflict. To that end, respecting opposing opinions and viewpoints even as we debate issues openly and vigorously is critical. Within our community we do not practice and we do not tolerate harassing, intimidating, or threatening behavior that would create an unreasonable environment for the work of our faculty, students, or staff, abuse of authority, or impeding any community member’s right to communicate one’s personal ideas simply because we disagree with the content.

There are times when members of our community who share these values fall short of fulfilling them; indeed, even for those who share these values, there is no one among any of us who can claim perfection when measured against these standards. But the measure of an institution or a community is not the isolated acts of behavior of one or a few members of that community, but is instead how the institution responds to those acts, what the institution and most members of the community project as their core value and mission, and how the members of the community conduct themselves. This law school, like any institution, is not perfect, but based on the standards that should be used to measure institutions, I know I speak for many when I express my pride at being affiliated with the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida.

Robert Jerry
Dean, Levin College of Law

[8/11/09; rev. 2/8/10]

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