Being Black @ VLS: Is it time to celebrate?

By Jameson Davis, Forum Columnist

The 15th Annual National Black Pre-Law Conference and Law Fair will take place on Nov. 9 in New York. Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Diversity Shirley A. Jefferson will attend this year’s conference on behalf of Vermont Law School. She will be awarded the Legal Education Access and Diversity Champion Honoree Award, while VLS will be one of 20 law schools nationwide to receive the Outstanding Law School Diversity Outreach Award. This year’s award marks the 15th consecutive year that VLS has been recognized for its outreach in diversity.

VLS has come a long way. Four decades after enrolling our first student of color in 1978, 48 Swans now comprise our largest-ever coalition of students of color. Six of the last seven years, the School’s percentage of students of color has surpassed 20 percent. The entering class of 2019 helped boost that number above 30 percent for the first time ever.

“We are proud of the progress we’ve made to increase the number of students of color who enroll VLS,” Vice President for Enrollment Management Jon Miller told me. “It has been a partnership between the Office of Admissions and the work of Associate Dean Shirley Jefferson to recruit diverse populations.”

Although congratulations are in order, I ask myself and you: should we be celebrating? Have the efforts VLS have put toward diversity outreach translated to positive experiences for the students of color on campus?

Drafted by the Diversity Committee, the 2017-2018 Vermont Law School Diversity Plan identified seven key goals:
—To increase the discussion and understanding of diversity within the law school community;
—To increase the incorporation of topics pertaining to diversity in the curriculum and classroom;
—To increase the ability of the administration, faculty, and staff in understanding and addressing in a sensitive and respectful manner the concerns of people of color and other diverse groups;
—To increase the number of people of color and other diverse groups in the student body;
—To increase the ability of people of color and other diverse groups to succeed in law school;
—To increase the number of people of color and other diverse groups on the faculty and in the administration, and staff; and
—To improve the process by which community issues and complaints concerning diversity are recognized and addressed.

After dissecting the Diversity Plan, which Dean Jefferson’s office is currently updating, I am left with more questions than answers. While the Council on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO) program and our partnership with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been huge successes for recruiting students of color to attend VLS, what is the retention rate for students of color? Many of the students of color I entered law school with have either transferred or decided to finish their education utilizing off-campus alternatives. Why?

Are parents of color getting the necessary support they need to deal with the racial microaggressions and explicit biases they face daily when dealing with the South Royalton School? Parents of color have expressed concerns that race has played a significant role in the way their children are treated by both students and faculty.

What about the lack of diversity within the faculty at VLS? Why is it that VLS has so much trouble with recruiting professors of color and retaining them long-term? Why have our alumni of color been seldom visible on campus or at events? Does Dean Jefferson have enough support in her goals of creating a campus where diversity and inclusion is considered an additional educational opportunity and much needed exposure for our students?

Vermont prides itself in being “tri-partisan”—that is, cooperation and collaboration between the state’s progressive, liberal, and conservative political parties is commonplace. However, many Vermonters fail to recognize that even with these diverse beliefs, the rooms that hold these conversations are still predominantly filled with white faces. Even with varied political beliefs, how diverse can a racially homogenous room be?

Being Black @ Vermont Law School intends to ask these questions while accurately depicting the experiences people of color face while attending VLS.

Jameson Davis has served the Town of Hartford as Selectman since 2017. He received his Master’s Degree from Vermont Law School in 2018.

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