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Western New England Law To Require Students Take Anti-Racism Course

Western New England University in Springfield awarded 581 bachelor degrees during its commencement ceremony in 2015.
File Photo
A file photo, from 2015, of the stage used during commencement at Western New England University.

Starting in the fall of 2022, new students attending Western New England University's law school will have to pass a course covering anti-racism or cultural competency in order to graduate.

Sudha Setty, dean at the law school, said faculty have engaged in anti-racism work for some time. But the murder of George Floyd and racial justice protests last summer prompted deep discussion on how to better prepare students for what she calls "lawyering in the real world."

Sudha Setty: Our faculty made a commitment to incorporating anti-racism learning in all of our courses, even the ones that perhaps don't suggest from their title that they are deeply focused on racial justice matters. So, courses in the world of taxation or business organizations or something like that ... to understand that many aspects of U.S. law and policy have been shaped in small part or in large part by race.

Kari Njiiri, NEPM: You mentioned some of the courses. What other courses are being offered to fulfill the requirement?

We have a relatively new class that we're offering called Diversity & Inclusion in the Legal Profession. There are other classes that deal more with legal history, with discrimination and structural inequality, civil rights writ large. And so we have courses like Race, Racism & the Law; gender in the law, sexual orientation and the law, a new course that focused on business law but from an anti-racist perspective, that all qualify to fulfill this requirement.

It may be too early, but do you expect any pushback from prospective students and/or their families?

You know, we have not received any pushback from it. But, as you said, this is early days yet. Of course, many of these issues have now been politicized or viewed in a very polarized environment. But I think in conversation with a prospective student or their families, I would be happy to talk about why this is actually quite important to the education of lawyers today, not only to learn about the history of law and how it's developed over time, but also because our students are going out to work in a world that is part of a globalized, interconnected environment, no matter what type of job they take.

And these courses and the skills that those provide will help those students not only add value when they are seeking jobs, but also help them hit the ground running when they enter into those jobs to really have an ability to understand the law that they're working with ... and understand the people with whom they will be interacting and representing in their careers as part of the legal profession.

You mentioned the importance of having your students come out of school, hitting the ground running. Why is that important?

Part of our job is not just to teach what the law is, but also to teach how the law has developed over time and where the law can move and perhaps should move in the future. And to understand that fully in any of these subject areas, in the United States, race is a part of them.

And, you know, one example might be thinking about property law, which is often just thought about as the law of real estate transactions or other types of transactions. But in order to understand how it is that populations — in even in western Massachusetts — why certain populations live where they do, it's helpful to understand the history of property law, and how there were racially restrictive covenants that existed that prevented the selling and buying of property by people of different races in different periods of time.

And when you understand that — not as the entirety of the course, but as a piece of what's being learned — you get a better sense of how the law has developed to where it is today and why and how it might change in the future.

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