Words He Can't Escape

April 4, 2007

Students at the George Mason University School of Law received a double whammy last week: First, Dean Daniel D. Polsby sent an e-mail informing them of a "special town hall meeting" scheduled for Monday where they could meet a candidate for a tenure-track job -- a 22-year-old candidate who had once posted online class notes containing a racial epithet while a law student at Harvard in 2002. Then the next day, Polsby canceled the meeting, writing that the controversial would-be professor "is no longer a candidate."

The unusual step of creating a student forum for a job candidate reflected the recurrent controversy over the remarks, immortalized on the Web through various blogs, sites and news articles. As originally reported in Harvard Law's The Record newspaper in 2002, Kiwi Camara had posted notes from a criminal law course to a popular online outline database, attaching a note warning readers of potentially offensive language. His shorthand included using the word "nig" to refer to African Americans, as in: "Nigs buy land w/ no nig covenant; Q: Enforceable?"

Camara has repeatedly apologized in the years since. "I realize it was a serious mistake on my part, and I’ve apologized for it many times," he said. And the issue hasn't only come up at George Mason: Camara said it's derailed other potential appointments in the past, too. "A number of law schools have said informally that that's the reason why they can't make an appointment ... I think it is a major problem, and understandably so."

Sure enough, the announcement of Camara's candidacy immediately led to criticism. Rex Flynn, a third-year student who is president of the Black Law Students Association, said in an e-mail that his organization "decided to reserve judgment and wait to adopt a position after we heard Prof. Camara speak at the town hall meeting." That never happened, but their concerns were concrete. "We are entitled to be free from having to wonder whether our grades are the result of our substantive analysis or the color of our skin."

For most students, a controversial phrase would stop haunting them at graduation. But Camara was no ordinary student. After graduating at age 19, the youngest in Harvard Law's history, the Filipino-American went on to win several Olin fellowships, at Harvard, Stanford and the Northwestern University School of Law, where he is currently teaching. He had a symposium article published in the Yale Law Journal. At each step, the words he wrote as a teenage 1L have followed in his wake, sometimes bubbling over again into the public sphere -- especially after the news of his article's acceptance  hit Yale's campus last year.

Which is why, after hearing that Camara was no longer a candidate to join the faculty, many assumed it was the skeletons in his closet, or, as some have contended, the youthful indiscretions that should have been forgiven long ago. But Polsby specifically noted in his e-mail to students that Camara was "no longer a candidate" for reasons "separate from those that prompted me to call the meeting." He was out of town on Tuesday, but a member of the faculty confirmed that it was an unrelated issue that arose after the original announcement, ending the hiring process.

What that issue might be is not known, although there has been speculation about unspecified political pressure. Faculty proceedings are confidential, and Camara would not say who ended the proceedings. Unlike some law schools, which require a supermajority, the faculty votes by simple majority to give the dean the authority to make an offer. Once that was done, it was Polsby's decision to go directly to the student body.

The incident has already sparked discussion online. Faculty members at GMU Law were hesitant to describe their reactions to the incident, but opinions are reportedly mixed among both students and faculty. If some were disappointed at how the proceedings ended, they weren't alone: Camara himself said he was dismayed by the outcome. "Yes, I was surprised. ... I was really impressed by the faculty there. I had the feeling of what you might imagine the University of Chicago was like 30 or 40 years ago" for economics -- "everybody focused on ideas."

And yes, economics is another area Camara has dabbled in, completing a year of the Ph.D. program at Stanford University. But, he said, the lack of faculty focusing on law and economics, a strength at George Mason, caused him to decide not to return. He currently has no competing offers but said he's considering leaving academe to practice law -- or, as he said, to gain "some more distance in terms of time to lessen this problem."

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