YLS Dean breaks silence on spate of law school scandals
Yasmine Halmane, staff photographer
Heather Gerken, Dean of Yale Law School, spoke of a series of controversies that have rocked the institution in recent weeks. In a November 17 email to the YLS community, Gerken acknowledged the administrative errors and reiterated his commitment to upholding freedom of expression.
Law school came to the nation’s attention after administrators censored Trent Colbert LAW ’23 for an email announcing a social event in language some students viewed as race-insensitive. On September 15, Colbert announced a party between Native American law student associations and the Federalist Society. Several students alleged that the invitation, which used the term “trap house”, amounted to racial discrimination. When the directors got involved, writing a letter of apology that they urged Colbert to sign and suggesting that his reputation in legal circles could be affected by the incident, it sparked broad conversations about racism on the campus and freedom of speech.
At the Federalist Society’s National Lawyers Convention in 2021, Yale Federalist Society President Zachary Austin ’17 LAW ’22 revealed that he was also asked to apologize for the email from Colbert in a meeting with YLS Associate Dean Ellen Cosgrove and Director of Diversity, Equity. & Inclusion Yaseen Eldik. Austin alleged that they were joined at the meeting by Chloe Bush, the administrator of the Office of Student Affairs responsible for approving the Federalist Society’s budget. Since the OSA did not provide an alternate explanation for Bush’s role at the meeting, Austin said his presence “appeared to be a tax burden on our organization to comply.”
On November 15, two anonymous law students filed a lawsuit against Yale University, as well as against Gerken, Cosgrove and Eldik. The complaint accused the University and administrators of “blackball[ing]Denied them employment opportunities after refusing to approve a statement condemning law professor Amy Chua for violating restrictions and accommodating them at her home. Two legal experts called the lawsuit “frivolous” and “embarrassing”, respectively. Gerken’s email did not address the lawsuit, which University spokeswoman Karen Peart said was “without legal and factual basis.”
“There are things the law school administration should have done differently, and I take full responsibility for that,” Gerken wrote in his email to the community.
In the email, Gerken wrote that his first step would be to ensure that the YLS administration had âthe right team in placeâ with the support and training to handle any similar conflict that might arise within. the community.
In the future, Gerken wrote, students will be offered assistance in resolving disputes in a manner consistent with University policies, and all parties involved in free speech complaints will be informed that the University policy excludes disciplinary action.
After the students raised issues of racial discrimination in Colbert’s email, they were told he would not be disciplined. But in a meeting with directors, Yale executives did not tell him he would not face disciplinary action.
After Colbert’s email, Eldik and Cosgrove emailed the grade two class, writing that an âinvitation was recently circulated containing derogatory and racist language. We condemn this in the strongest possible terms [and] are working to resolve this issue.
Gerken stressed that she had prioritized inclusiveness throughout her deanship, seeking to create an environment where students feel âcalled to the community rather than calledâ.
âThe email from administrators to Class 2L members did not strike the right balance between these two goals,â Gerken wrote. “I take full responsibility for this failure.”
Gerken has set itself the added goal of ensuring that all students and groups of students are treated in a professional, fair and impartial manner.
At an event on November 11 at the convention, law professor Sterling Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84 said that YLS has not treated the Yale Federalist Society fairly.
“In my opinion, based on all kinds of information, some public, some not yet made public, is that the law school is not meeting our highest commitments,” Amar said during the presentation. convention. âThe administration was dilatory, duplicate, fallacious and downright deplorable. ”
Gerken wrote that “no student or group of students should have reason to believe that administrators are acting in a biased or unfair manner, and I deeply regret that this impression was given in this case.”
As part of ongoing action, Gerken brought together a group of faculty members to “reflect on how to maintain our cherished intellectual environment and warm community,” quoting Professors Justin Driver, Oona Hathaway, Tracey Meares, Nick Parrillo and Claire Priest as the leaders of this effort. .
Other universities, including the University of Chicago in 2014, have also reported on the commitment to free speech on their campuses.
Currently, the University’s free speech policies are governed by the âReport of the Committee on Free Speech at Yale,â colloquially known as the Woodward Report. Gerken did not provide further context on the exact responsibilities the group of faculty members will take on, but said their work would outline the steps to create an environment in which people might disagree as well as revise the standards. surrounding the sharing of private correspondence and secretly recorded conversations. Colbert secretly recorded his conversations with Eldik and Cosgrove, which were later leaked to the press.
In an October 18 email to the law school community, Gerken explained that she was asking Associate Dean Ian Ayres to conduct a “review” of the events and the responses to them. With those results, she would decide how the institution would proceed, Gerken wrote. Ayres found that a number of students who raised concerns about perceived racial insensitivities in Colbert’s initial email were told by administrators that the University’s free speech policy precluded them. to take disciplinary action against Colbert.
Ayres also found that the boards of the Federalist Society and NALSA were both “totally oblivious” to Colbert’s invitation before it was sent.
Ayres’ review found that members of the administration “attempted to fulfill their obligations under University policy whenever complaints of discrimination were filed.” While protected speech is never a cause for disciplinary action, the email explains, directors are encouraged to facilitate informal resolutions.
Three students previously explained that the University made it clear that Colbert was at no risk of discipline and explained why they found the language of the email offensive. The students had previously told The News that they had attempted to contact Colbert individually about his email, but had not responded for several weeks.
Austin declined to comment on Gerken’s email. Colbert declined to comment on Gerken’s email, instead referring the News to a blog post he published on October 25, titled “Why I Didn’t Apologize for This Email from the School of Yale “.
In the mail, Colbert doubled down on his refusal to sign the apology email drafted for him by the Yale Law School administrators.
âAn action does not justify a forced apology just because an individual or group demands it,â Colbert wrote. âInstead, an apology should be a sincere expression of remorse and an admission of fault. Yale administrators did not think I had been racist by using the phrase “house trap”. But it didn’t matter. They urged me to appease the students through a public submission.
John G. Balestriere, the lawyer representing the two plaintiffs in the law school lawsuit, told the News that they hope that one of the results of this lawsuit is to ensure that “no one else has to endure what he went through “.
âOur clients are asking for damages because they have suffered damages in a monetary amount,â said BalestriÃ¨re. “Anything that would be appropriate for the court and they’re also open to any kind of reasonable discussion regarding feeling that might be beyond money.”
Despite the recent incidents, law professor John Witt stressed that the rigor of academic teaching continues. His students at Yale are “amazing,” he said.
âTheir intellectual energies seem intact, they have bold research agendas and curious, inquisitive minds,â Witt wrote. “They keep doing a great job and coming up with exciting ideas, hell with potential distractions.”
Gerken was appointed Dean of Yale Law School in 2017.
Clarification, November 19, This article has been updated with a quote on prosecution and to make it clear that Gerken did not specifically address it, as well as to mirror Gerken’s previous email starting an investigation into the incidents and explaining that she would decide the course of the school with the findings of the survey in hand.