Monday, June 14, 2021
Rachel Lopez, Unentitled: The Power of Designation in the Legal Academy, 73 Rutgers L. Rev. 101 (2021)
Last December, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed that questioned whether Dr. Jill Biden should more appropriately be addressed as Madame First Lady, Mrs. Biden, Jill, or even kiddo, characterizing her desire to be called doctor “fraudulent” and a “touch comic.” Many were understandably outraged by the lack of respect afforded to Dr. Biden, which had a distinctly gendered dimension. More recently, after a controversial decision by the University of North Carolina’s board of trustees to deny her tenure, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur “genius grant” winner, was instead appointed as a “Professor of Practice” on a five year fixed term contract. These high-profile examples put in sharp focus what many women of color in the legal academy already know all too well: labels have an innate power to confer or diminish status. This Essay explores the role that titles play in the legal academy and, in particular, their often depreciative consequences for women of color. Drawing from my story, those relayed to me by others, and other empirical evidence, I will show how titles perpetuate stereotypes and entrench existing racial and gender hierarchies in the legal academy, although they appear race- and gender- neutral.
It is no secret that the legal academy is extraordinarily hierarchical, with women and people of color often populating the lower ranks of the totem pole. There is a stinging irony to this. As Ruth Gordon eloquently put it, “many of us spend our professional lives contesting hierarchy and exclusion—whether on the basis of race, gender, or class—but when it comes to academia—and I would suggest especially legal academia—we appear to have finally found a hierarchy we can believe in.” There is a problem of academic exceptionalism in the legal academy—hierarchy and exclusion are others’ problems, not our own.
Labels, in the form of titles, help cement these disparities, concretizing them into a caste system that justify unequal pay, less power in faculty governance, and, at times, abusive behavior. While doctrinal professors are “Professors of Law,” the academic archetype, the legal academy has developed a virtual cottage industry of other professional designations. These titles denote “the other teachers” in the legal academy: Clinical Professor, Professor of Practice, Teaching Professor, and Legal Writing Instructor, to name a few. The message is that “Professors of Law” are the ones who really teach the law, while those with the other titles teach something else less important.
If law schools truly aspire to be anti-racist institutions, as so many have pledged to be, we must acknowledge and hopefully someday soon address the racial and gendered (often intersectional) dynamics of titles in the legal academy.