The Law Professor Who Answered Back

When students complained about a Black Lives Matter shirt, she responded in a letter now going viral, but without any identification. We'll tell you who she is.

July 12, 2016
Patricia Leary

A few months ago, one or more anonymous students wrote a note to their law professor, complaining that she had been spotted at least once on campus wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. The letter said wearing the shirt was "inappropriate" and "highly offensive." Further, it said "we do not spend three years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars to be subjected to indoctrination or personal opinions of our professors," and urged the professor to avoid "mindless actions" that might distract students at a law school where not everyone is passing the bar.

The professor wrote back, not only defending her T-shirt, but also critiquing the students' understanding of the professor-student relationship. While the incident took place earlier this year, the students' letter and the professor's response went viral in the last week, as Black Lives Matters protests resumed after the killings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota. Many have been applauding the professor, while some noted a lack of any information on who she was and whether the letters could be verified.

The professor is Patricia Leary, and she's been teaching at Whittier Law School since 1992. She's traveling right now and Inside Higher Ed was unable to reach her directly. But the law school confirmed that the letters were legit and she was the author. Whittier is known for its diversity: nonwhite students make up a majority of the law school's student body.

The full exchange of letters can be found here. In her response, Leary analyzes the premises of the students -- and goes well beyond Black Lives Matter.

Here are some of Leary's comments that are attracting discussion:

On student claims that their tuition requires her to pay attention: She responded that she does care about their opinions but because they are students, not consumers. "The natural and logical extension of your premise is that students on a full scholarship are not entitled to assert their needs and desires to the same extent as other students (or maybe even at all). So, as you can see, arguments premised on consumerism are not likely to influence me. On the contrary, such a premise causes me to believe that you have a diminished view of legal education."

On the student premise that "you are not paying for my opinion": "You are not paying me to pretend I don't have one," she said.

On student criticism that Black Lives Matter is "racist and anti-law enforcement and has been known to incite violence": Leary wrote that the students seem to believe there is "an invisible 'only' in front of the words "Black Lives Matter." Leary added: "If I say 'law students matter,' it does not imply that my colleagues, friends and family do not …. When people are receiving messages from the culture in which they live that their lives are less important than other lives, it is a cruel distortion of reality to scold them for not being inclusive enough." Leary also added that "Black Lives Matter" is "not a statement about white people. It does not exclude white people. It does not accuse white people, unless you are a specific white person who perpetuates, endorses or ignores violence against black people."

Leary then goes on to offer a critique of the writing style of the memo, saying it was poorly written and undercut the argument of the letter writers.

Still, she closes with a word of thanks to the students, writing: "I believe that every moment in life (and certainly in the life of law school) can be an occasion for teaching and learning. Thank you for creating an opportunity for me to put this deeply held belief into practice."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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