In the spring of 2020, Dean Jennifer Mnookin sent two messages to faculty, staff and students in response to challenges to the school’s goal of fostering an environment where people of all backgrounds feel welcome. The first message, below, was issued April 14, 2020. The second message was issued May 4, 2020.
April 14, 2020
Dear Law School Community,
To say that this has been a difficult month would be an understatement. I am proud of our community and the ways that it has come together during this challenging time of the pandemic. Students, staff and faculty have rallied in incredible and unprecedented ways to continue our learning and educational mission, to wrestle with the difficult issues that Covid-19 presents and to support one another. I have never been prouder to be your dean and to work alongside you.
The coronavirus is scary and unsettling, and not only for the severe and potentially life-threatening illness it produces. The economic disruptions it has already generated are monumental and wrenching. Both the illness and these economic consequences affect many in our community, from students whose employment options have become less secure to family members who face unemployment, disruption, crisis and great uncertainty. And these fears have also stoked terrible xenophobia and despicable acts of hate and violence directed against Asian and Asian-American individuals.
Unfortunately, last week, a UCLA Law faculty member tweeted out remarks that mirrored xenophobic speculation that has been directed at Asian and Asian-American communities. The faculty member, Stephen Bainbridge, stated that he had been ill recently, and wondered if one of the Chinese students in his class might have brought coronavirus to campus. These tweets were offensive and harmful, particularly given the widespread hostility that has been directed at Asian and Asian-American communities as a result of this pandemic. I recognize that these tweets harmed and deeply pained many members of our community and most particularly our Chinese LL.M. students, a number of whom are in his class this semester and who could well have felt singled out and unwelcome because of his tweet. As members of the Asian Pacific Islander Law Students Association pointed out in their thoughtful letter addressed to me and others, "Language has a viral quality—it can pollute, infect, and distort our perception of the world and each other." Additionally, I appreciate that our students issued their letter "with an eye towards community healing, closure, and engagement."
After hearing from students and on his own accord, Professor Bainbridge delivered apologies to the students who contacted him, on Twitter and on his blog. He acknowledged, "There are unquestionably far too many strains of xenophobia in this country right now, especially taking the form of anti-Asian and anti-Asian American sentiment. In this context, my tweets were thoughtless and unfortunate. Put bluntly, they were stupid and insensitive," he wrote. I appreciate his apology, and I am deeply sorry for the harm caused by his tweets.
I recognize that this is not the only recent incident in which words have caused wounds within our walls. Earlier in the year, Professor Eugene Volokh used the "n-word," both in class—in teaching a First Amendment case—and outside of class when recounting the incident to a colleague. As you may know, Professor Volokh has strong views about why he chooses to use incendiary language – even when vile –in his classroom, without euphemism or alteration. While he has the right to make that choice as a matter of academic freedom and First Amendment rights, so long as he is not using this or other words with animus, many of us – myself included – strongly believe that he could achieve his learning goals more effectively and empathetically without repeating the word itself. That is equally true in casual settings outside the classroom. Slurs, even when mentioned for pedagogical purposes, hurt people. The n-word is inextricably associated with anti-Black prejudice, racism and slavery; it is a word that carries with it the weight of our shameful history and the reality of ongoing anti-Black racism. I am deeply sorry for the pain and offense the use of this word has caused, and I very much respect the important work our Black Law Students Association undertook, using speech to counter speech, in the flowchart they distributed around the building.
Neither of these instances can be divorced from the dynamics of privilege and difference in our law school and this country. Many student organizations and individual students have been in deep, ongoing conversation with me and others in my administration, both about these particulars and, more generally, about how to create the strongest and most inclusive learning environment possible.
And that is work that we can and must undertake collectively. To be sure, it is also important to recognize that there is already much we can be proud of about our community and in our learning environment. I see daily the way that compassion and empathy couple with rigorous intellectual engagement. I see students working ardently to learn and to lead while holding on to their deep sense of justice. I see faculty caring about our students as both learners and as individuals. I see students from all over the globe who enrich our collective learning and help to broaden our worldview. And I see a community that is meaningfully diverse along virtually every dimension, and a school where students from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the legal profession are succeeding, flourishing and leading, engaged in powerful advocacy both within our school and in the world beyond.
But we are obviously far from perfect. We can – and must – do better. In the coming days and weeks, I look forward to working with APILSA, BLSA, and others in our community to continue to listen, learn, and address these issues in meaningful and concrete ways. I have started that process already: earlier this year, I asked the UCLA Law Committee on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, which includes both faculty and students, to make concrete proposals for improving our climate, and to develop curriculum, teaching tools, and programming to make our learning environment more inclusive and more effective. They have been hard at work – even during this pandemic – to develop some proposals for our community. I also well know that they – and I – certainly do not have all the answers, and that as the letter from APILSA also recognizes, there will be challenges. As part of that process, we will actively seek your input and ideas.
Today, I mainly wanted to send a message to all of you to reaffirm my and this institution's core commitments and values, including creating a supportive learning environment for everyone. I am wholly committed to fostering an environment where students and faculty, regardless of background, race, nationality, religion, gender identity, political perspective, or any other dimensions of our lived identities, feel heard, welcomed and fully and deeply included. And I promise you that our school's response to these incidents will not end with this email.
I know I can count on all of you to help us do better, to constructively call us to account when we do not fully live up to our principles, and to engage with one another, and with the administration, to share your energy and good ideas, even in times of tremendous challenge. Thank you so very much for that.
Jennifer L. Mnookin
Dean and David G. Price & Dallas P. Price Professor of Law