Idaho College of Law, the only institution in Idaho accredited by AALS and ABA seems to be caught in a war between the Dean, Donald L. Burnett Jr. and a group of students. Both sides seem to be justified for their points of views and representations. However, the Dean, and by extension the Idaho College of Law seems to have entered a tight spot over proposed mandatory attendance in diversity programs meant for students, staff, and faculty alike.
The war started off with the Dean notifying in an email on 27th January that the institution has decided to conduct 75-minute long sessions on professionalism and diversity and:
“Roll will be taken at each session. Attending students will have a certificate of participation placed in their student record files. Any student who does not participate, and has not been excused, will have a memorandum to that effect placed in his or her student record file.”
Some students have taken serious affront at the second line, which to them indicates coercion leading to reputation damage of non-attendees. Students who wrote an open letter to the Dean against such measures pointed out:
- An event of importance to the University and to the College of law cannot justify threats to place into a student’s permanent record a letter indicating that they did not attend a workshop on professionalism and diversity, since it would imply the particular student did not agree with the subject matter of the session he/she did not attend.
- It is unacceptable that a student be forced to attend an extracurricular activity under threat of a memo that suggests unprofessionalism or bigotry in the student’s personality.
- Students enrolled in the college of law are adults and as such they enjoy the same freedom of choice as all other citizens.
- It is better to encourage attendance through positive means rather than by threats to spoil a student’s future.
While the students seem quite right there’s much that remains below the surface.
The unprecedented measure by the Dean is hardly of his own accord, but following the directives of a visiting team from ABA and AALS pertaining to periodic accreditation renewal of the institution. As the Dean pointed out in his replies:
“In October, 2011, a joint team from the ABA and AALS visited the UI College of Law as part of a review process that occurs every seven years. The team included lawyers as well as academics; three of its members were or had been law school deans. Several of them had conducted site review visits at up to ten or more law schools. During a four-day visit to Moscow and Boise, they had many scheduled and casual interactions with students, staff, and faculty. During their exit briefings with College and University administrators, the team referred to these interactions and stated emphatically that the College of Law should focus additional attention upon professionalism and diversity.”
That, by itself, is something rare to hear from a visiting team of the ABA and AALS, and unless the interactions on campus led the team to find things amiss with respect to professionalism and respect to diverse cultures, such a suggestion is unexpected.
Needless to say, the Dean is entirely within his rights to ask for mandatory attendance to courses, or to place memorandums of non-attendance within the rules of the institution, something that he would rarely do unless exasperated. But, the question is did he go overboard in trying to play safe with the institution’s accreditation?
The Dean has, since then, apologized twice in open forums for unintended use of language that might be construed as harsh, but it’s hard to define who is right, given the messy situation.