Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Race and Michigan Law

A week or so ago, I received the most recent copy of the Michigan Law Quadrangle, the one with a picture of Chief Justice Roberts on the cover. The picture alone intrigued me enough to open it up and page through it, rather than recycle it off-hand as I usually do. And what I found inside almost shocked me. Almost.

I started from the back of the magazine, in the great tradition of Harry Burns. This is the portion entitled "Faculty news." I paged through it quickly, and my eye caught something that almost surprised me: of the 26 pictures included, 6 were women, and only one was a professor of color. This is exactly the way I remember the place: a lot of white guys walking around the halls up in the faculty wing, a few women, barely any professors of color.

I kept looking, and next they showed me pictures of the new faculty; and out of 9 new hires, three were women and not one was a person of color.

This really made me curious, and I almost went to the website and looked around a bit. I was also inclined to page through the entire magazine and see how many faces of color were included. But alas, I have real things to do with my time.

Honestly, though: how do they do it? Students at the time I was there would talk about it and laugh amongst ourselves about how few women and professors of color there were. We still do. From where I sit today, I hear the same talk coming from other academics about Michigan law and their hiring practices. I don't claim to be a statistics super hero, but surely, doesn't a blind man hit a free throw every now and then? How does Michigan law, the birthplace of the Michigan cases (if that irony doesn't tickle your funny bone, you are way more hardened than I) manage to have as few faculty of color as they do?

This debate often boils down to the issue of merit. The argument is disarmingly simple: those who call Michigan law home got there on the strength of great academic credentials, of "merit" as defined by the institution itself and the legal profession as a whole.

It amazes me that anybody who has ever sat on an appointments committee would be moved by that argument. But that might be a topic for another time. For now, I can only say that the more things change . . .

But really: HOW do they do it?