Friday, September 10, 2021

Unentitled: The Power of Designation in the Legal Academy

Rachel Lopez, Unentitled: The Power of Designation in the Legal Academy, 73 RUTGERS L. REV. 923 (2021).

Social constructs, like titles, have the power to “confer or diminish status.”  This is especially true in the legal academy.  This essay highlights “how titles perpetuate stereotypes and entrench existing racial and gender hierarchies in the legal academy, although they appear race- and gender-neutral.”  Titles in the legal academy create and exacerbate hierarchies within our educational system, such as those between clinical and doctrinal professors.  “Clinical and legal writing professors usually are not on the tenure-track.  They are paid less and have less of a role in faculty governance.” Those same hierarchies, in turn, have a disproportionate impact on women, especially women of color, who statistically are overrepresented in clinical/nontenure-track positions and underrepresented in doctrinal/tenure-track positions. Even when those from underrepresented backgrounds gain the titles of the much-coveted highest hierarchical tier, they are often “unentitled” by students and colleagues.  That is, they consistently experience students and colleagues referring to them by first name for example, rather than by title, while still referring to the those from less marginalized backgrounds as “Doctor” or “Professor.”

While discouraging, the essay suggests a number of solutions.  Some are institutional, like providing one egalitarian title to all who teach the law. “[P]rofessor of law. Period.”  Even if a university is not willing to go that far, more law schools are adopting a “unitary track, or at the very least provid[ing] a tenure-track option for all teaching positions.”  Perhaps your institution is not willing to make either, or a similar, structural change.  There are still things you as an individual can do.  Interrupting the bias when you observe it is key.  The author relates a story wherein a new Vice Provost introduced a female professor of color to some of his old colleagues, but referred to her by first name in the email and his colleagues by their titles.  One of the colleagues on the email, however, immediately corrected the error in his response by referring to the professor by title.  A simple, “Dr. Jackson, it is a pleasure to meet you,” went a long way to interrupting bias in that instance.  It is not just in the large institutional shifts that we can make a difference, though those are indisputably important, it is in the little moments as well.

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