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Penn State Law hosts panel on diversity in legal education

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Penn State Law Panel

Penn State Law hosts panel on diversity in legal education at Sutliff Auditorium on Thursday, March 16, 2017.

A panel discussion on diversity and implicit bias in the legal academy described issues that go far beyond the realm of education.

The panel, co-hosted by Penn State Law and “All In,” consisted of four Penn State professors as well as one Penn State Law student.

On Thursday night in the Sutliff Auditorium of the Lewis Katz Building, Professor Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia began the event by giving a brief description as to why the topic of discussion is important in our world today.

“Addressing diversity and implicit bias in the legal academy is critical,” Wadhia said. “When students see a mixed group of people teaching them from the podium or interacting with them in the lunch room; when faculty candidates see a mixed group of people on the hiring committee — that tells them something fundamentally important about the character of a law school.”

She ran the discussion by allowing each panelist 10 to 12 minutes to discuss their specialty on the subject.

Wadhia began by introducing Professor Dara Purvis who spoke about gender diversity in law schools. Purvis mentioned studies done by professionals at Harvard University who say females don’t have it as easy as males because of an idea she calls “alienation.”

“There’s a vision of an idealized law student and that ideal has become gendered,” Purvis said.

Purvis said the characteristics that follow the ideal law student have become very masculine since in the past, law schools were dominated by men. She said this has negative consequences for females that include having less confidence to speak up in class, having less faith in their accomplishments and being at a higher risk for symptoms of depression and anxiety.

“We need to beak the mode of the ideal law student so that everyone can see themselves in the picture of what a law student should be,” Purvis said.

Law student Shushan Sadjadi brought the perspective of a student to the table, while speaking more to biases regarding race.

Sadjadi said she grew up and has taught in mostly diverse communities so coming to Penn State for law school wasn’t much different from her previous experiences.

“Penn State did such an excellent job on creating an environment that was diverse,” she said. “I feel so fortunate to be in a place that does prioritize diversity.”

However, it wasn’t until an experience she had visiting a law school in Nevada that made her realize not every law school prioritized diversity.

“There were only two black students in the entire class. I assumed that all law schools were putting a priority on diversity,” Sadjadi said.

Dr. Erica Frankenberg tried to provide an explanation for the issues the two panelists previously mentioned.

Frankenberg talked about lack of diversity in schools across the United States.

“Whites are the most segregated students in K-12 schools,” she said. “They’re the least exposed to other races.”

She explained why this is such a problem and spoke to studies done in the social sciences that prove having early exposure to other races make people less likely to form strong biases.

“Declining diversity harms the quality of education and opportunities for all students,” she said.

Professor Larry Backer finished the discussion by blaming the lack of change in schools on the heads of universities such as deans and presidents, saying they don’t do enough.

“It’s time to stop showboating diversity to feel better about ourselves,” Backer said. “Showboating is bad. Planning is better, having conversation is better. We have a lot of work that needs to be done regarding inclusion, but right now it’s just not happening.”

Backer said he hopes the audience learned that diversity is something everyone benefits from.

“I hope that our audience learns that diversity is not a fetish object or a magic word that simply through its expression produces some sort of effect or wards off others,” Backer said. “I hope we all learn that the willingness to engage in conversation, listen and learn from our singular and shared experiences will contribute to a stronger community here at Penn State.”

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