November 11, 2012

Cornell Law School Seeks Surge in Number of Minority Professors

Print More

This article is the first in a series about the University’s diversity initiatives.

As part of a University-wide diversity push, the Cornell Law School is aiming to increase the number African-American and Hispanic faculty and the percentage of admitted African-American students –– a push some students say is essential to ensuring that minorities feel supported at the law school.

Stewart Schwab, dean of the law school, said that 48 percent of the law school’s first-year students identify as a member of a racial or ethnic minority, in addition to the school’s significant number of international students. The racial and ethnic makeup of the student body “compares favorably with other top programs,” he said.

Erika Lopez law, president of Latino American Law Students’ Association — which aims to support Latino-American students in the law school — emphasized the importance of hiring a racially and ethnically diverse faculty.

“I do think that right now, the law school definitely needs to focus on increasing diversity,” Lopez said. “There’s only one Latino professor, and he’s leaving at the end of the semester, which is not very encouraging for Latino law students. Trying to find methods to recruit Latino professors should be a priority for the law school.”

Lopez mentioned that the Latino faculty member who is leaving, Prof. Eduardo Peñalver ’94, is the LALSA advisor. She stressed the importance of having mentors of diverse backgrounds.

“Having that support system of someone we can relate to is very, very important,” Lopez said. “We really do need professors who identify as Latino or African-American because they have more of a connection to our organizations and our students.”

Cheyenne Sanders law, president of the Native American Law Students’ Association, said that she wants to see the law school focus on “building a critical mass” of minority students — particularly Native Americans.

“It’s hard to build a community with four or five Native Americans per class,” Sanders said. “Native students are one of the smallest groups in the bar. It’s important that Native students feel supported — through NALSA, financially and academically — when they get here. The administration has been very receptive to our ideas, but we would love to see an increase in the amount of Native students enrolled.”

Lopez and Sanders both said that diversity of thought and of experience has the potential to add important perspectives to students’ law school experiences.

“Cornell Law focuses on diversity because it adds so much to classroom discussions,” Sanders said. “You need a variety of opinions in order to foster legal thinking. When they’re looking to build their incoming class, they want to see differences of opinion.”

For instance, Sanders said, when her constitutional law class discussed the Marshall Trilogy — a series of Supreme Court cases that defined Native American sovereignty — she became particularly conscious of the importance of having different perspectives in the classroom.

“There was one other Native student in the class, and she and I were the only two that had the same kind of different perspective on Native sovereignty issues,” Sanders said. “That’s one example of students’ cultural background changing and/or supplementing the discussion.”

Lopez agreed, saying that a general emphasis on diversity “brings a different perspective” into the classroom.

“Members of the Latin-American community are all very, very different,” Lopez said. “They come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different countries in Latin America. People who have roots in the Latino culture are able to offer so many different perspectives, which is valuable in the legal community because it helps people understand what our community goes through.”

To help increase the diversity of the law school, administrators have outlined the school’s “base goals” for the year, according to Schwab. This academic year, the law school established an eight-member faculty committee, chaired by Prof. John Blume, law, to implement and monitor the school’s diversity initiatives.

“We want to study where we’re being effective,” Schwab said. “What’s most effective is a general commitment to diversity as part of the mission [of the law school] — it plays out in the admissions and faculty appointment committee.”

Schwab expressed hope that the initiatives will improve students’ experiences at the law school.

“There have been some success stories, but [diversity] is an area that’s always good to monitor,” Schwab said. “We’ve had these goals in mind for a while. We want to make sure students are feeling comfortable, feeling as though they have mentors and good job prospects.”

The initiatives would add to the law school’s existing outreach efforts, which include Diversity Weekend — an event the law school hosts for students of color in April to attract students who have been accepted.

“Right now, I think the school does a very good job with Diversity Weekend after students have been accepted to the law school,” Lopez said. “Affinity groups are able to host admitted students and show them around the law school, introduce them to the student organizations and share our experiences.”

Lopez said the weekend played a significant role in her decision to attend the Cornell Law School.

Original Author: Sarah Meyers