By Julia Guerrein, Editor-in-Chief
On Thursday, March 11, Vermont Law School (VLS) faculty approved the VLS Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Report and Strategic Plan (Report and Plan) and the Vermont Law School Commitment to Anti-Racism and Support for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (Commitment).
The Report and Plan cover a wide range of topics and is broken down into major goals. Underneath each goal in the first part of the document is “activity and progress,” which details what VLS has implemented so far to reach that goal. The second part of the document, titled, “Challenges, Plans and Initiatives – Looking Ahead,” restates the same six goals, but focuses on next step to make progress towards the goals. The Report and Plan is designed to be top-down: the direction comes from the Administration, and offices, groups, clinics, and professors are to develop and implement their own plans to meet the goals.
The five goals include: (1) To increase the ability of the administration, faculty, and staff to understand, discuss and address in a sensitive and respectful manner the concerns of people of color – Black, Indigenous, and non-black people of color (BIPOC), LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, and other diverse groups; (2) To increase the incorporation of topics of diversity into the curriculum and classroom; (3) To increase the number of BIPOC, LGBTQ+ people, and people with disabilities in the student body; (4) To increase the ability of BIPOC, LGBTQ+ people and people with disabilities to succeed in law school, to feel welcome, respected, and supported in the community; (5) To increase the number of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people in the faculty, administration, staff, and board; and (6) To increase financial and human resources to support all diversity efforts.
Most of the Report and Plan is dedicated to outlining how VLS has taken concrete steps towards these goals in the classroom and with out-of-classroom activities, such as clubs and lectures. These descriptions include a qualitative look at how VLS has worked towards the goals set forth in the plan.
The end of the Report and Plan looks at how far VLS has come over time, with a table of student numbers and graphs to represent those numbers. In particular, the Report and Plan includes numbers on the number of men, women, students of color, LGBT self-identified, and first-generation students attending graduate school. These statistics have enabled VLS to track progress in a numerical way. (Graphs are included at the bottom of this article.)
The Commitment is a statement developed by students, spearheaded by the Student Bar Association (SBA), in order to commit VLS to fighting against “inherent ignorance, intolerance, racial and social injustice, through teaching and scholarship, research and practice, open discussion, and public events.” The Commitment calls to be inclusive of all people “regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion, nationality, ethnicity, ability, age, or socioeconomic class.”
VLS’s recommitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is a continuation of efforts within the school to address inequality.
“We know that certain members of society have been neglected,” said Shirley Jefferson, Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Diversity and VLS Associate Professor. Jefferson further explained how the law school admissions process—everything from the unfair weight the LSAT is given in admissions and scholarship decisions to access to resources for incoming students—directly bars diverse students from accessing a legal education in the first place.
If students are able to navigate the admissions process and get to law school, then they have the challenge of getting through. VLS has created resources for students to help them both academically and personally, such as ASP and Clara Martin counseling services, but the Report and Plan intends to support the development of new resources.
Jefferson, a VLS alum, began working at the school in 1999. The position that Jefferson currently holds, Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Diversity, was originally created in 1999. VLS released its first diversity report in 1998, which focused on race and ethnicity. Since then, diversity has grown to include other factors, such as sex and socioeconomic status.
In her discussions with The Forum, Jefferson made clear how far VLS and the country as a whole have progressed during her lifetime. She sees the Plan as a way forward to meeting higher goals.
“Finally we can get to work,” said Jefferson. “We at least made a commitment.”