VLS addresses student diversity through orientation, Diversity Committee

By Stephanie Bing

When Jeannie Quinterros first heard the pitch to apply to Vermont Law School, she was skeptical.

“Are there Black people there?”

But first-year students like Quinterros discovered almost immediately that diversity is a high priority at the law school. Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Diversity, Shirley Jefferson, first instituted diversity workshops in student and staff orientations in 2001. Despite being virtual, this year’s orientation was no different. In this year’s virtual diversity training, students broke into small groups to discuss their experiences with implicit bias, either as victim or perpetrator. Afterwards, Dean Jefferson, in a speech that had her audience dabbing their eyes, told her personal story of overcoming educational racism and her desire to see all the incoming students succeed.

“The fact that this is important enough at VLS . . . that they devoted orientation time to it and really cared that everyone who wanted to voice something [was] heard [made it] a really powerful time,” said 1L James Brien.

The law school has ongoing efforts to prioritize diversity and racial equality. The Diversity Committee—an on-campus organization that aims to enact an anti-racism action plan—met for the first time this year on September 11th. With eight staff sponsors and over 40 students participating, it was a robust conversation about how to correct racial injustice on an institutional level. “We’re dealing with internal and external structural issues [from] inside VLS [to] the ABA and Bar Exam,” said Diversity Committee Co-Chair, Professor Matthew Bernstein.

Regarding diversity, Vermont Law School Dean and President, Thomas McHenry noted, “we do a lot better than a number of law schools in terms of the percentage of students of color, [but] I don’t think there’s any doubt that there’s tremendous inequality [in legal education].”

VLS has come a long way in creating space for women and people of color since its inception in 1972. The school first admitted a Black student in 1978 and reached double digits in 1987 with 11 Black J.D. candidates. Last year, that number grew to 48.

In 2009, the J.D. program reached its highest number of admitted women—127—and in 2018 admitted 24 students to the J.D. program who identify as LGBTQ+. And although race, gender, and sexual orientation are the most talked-about demographics in assessing diversity, VLS considers additional identifying traits such as first-generation college graduates, veterans, older non-traditional students, those with learning disabilities, and single parents as part of its effort to enrich the diversity of its community, according to Jefferson.

But despite the school’s individual effort to diversify, higher education itself is wrought with racial inequality that McHenry says is meant to reinforce economic gaps between white people and people of color. This inequality is perpetuated through tuition discounting, for example.

“Students who are already well prepared . . . and that’s not where you’re finding students of color . . . tend to be people who are white and rich. They’re getting high LSAT scores because they’ve gone to very good preschools, day schools, middle schools, high schools, colleges, and take courses to prepare for the . . . LSAT,” said McHenry. “We discount their tuition because we want that student with the high LSAT score because our ranking depends . . . on it.”  

And the student that does not have the high LSAT score, but has equal intellectual ability, “[t]hey pay the full ride,” said McHenry.

Vermont Law School, by default, participates in this kind of systemic reinforcement of discrimination, but it does not start in the VLS admissions office. “This plays across all 198 ABA accredited law schools,” said McHenry.

Jefferson, who has been with the school for 20 years, says this is particularly unfortunate because LSAT scores are not necessarily indicators of law school success. “You can have a student score a 165 and another student score a 144 and have [the latter] outdo [them]. This has happened!”

To Jefferson, there is more merit in giving motivated students, rather than just those with high LSAT scores, an opportunity and watching them rise to the occasion. Students who heard her story at orientation know she can attest to it—she was one of them.

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