Sunday, December 10, 2006

Some Thoughts on the Role of a Minority Groups Section in the American Legal Academy

The Minority Groups Section remains one of the most vital sections in the Association of American Law Schools. Its institutional presence serves as a constant reminder of the progress that traditionally disadvantaged groups have made within the legal academy in the United States, as well as the progress that remains to be made. But that task, and those accomplishments provide a deeper insight we might do well to consider more fully. Like many of us in our other relationships with the community at large, the Section stands both apart from and comfortably, perhaps too comfortably, within the community of academics in the United States the AALS seeks to serve. And that brings me to the point of this short essay on the role of a community of faculty connected by ties of status in an organization otherwise largely divided by interest in one or another field of law: the Section must, in its programs and actions, remember that while it is a part of this great organization, it ought to always stand apart from it as well.

One of the great tasks of this Section has been to naturalize the contributions of its members to the academy. That remains a difficult task, requiring some of our colleagues, and the institutions in whose governance they participate, to abandon systems of judging that supposed many of our members to be invisible or required them to mimic some imposed model of academic perfection, a model our members had little hand in creating, for a chance at continuing appointment. For everything from challenging assumptions of what constituted scholarship worthy of the name, to who might produce these works (and in what forms), to issues of educating students to overcome their own personal and cultural prejudices, this Section has lent its hand whenever it could. Its greatest activity may be to provide refuge. This Section opens its institutional home to the marginalized, to those who have been demonized, to those who might be cast away. This Section also serves to amplify the many voices that together make up a mellifluously dissonant chorus that can only better serve to move us closer to the ideals that help shape our political society. But perhaps the greater task for this Section has been to develop behaviors that demonstrate that, at least at an institutional level, individuals can participate in as equals within an environment respectful of difference but united within a community of shared values. Not political or economic values, to be sure (that would be dreadful indeed), but of ethical values springing most assuredly from a heightened understanding of human dignity in all of its complexities and contingencies.

The role of the stewards of this Section ought to be to help the Section and its members to more effectively stand as part and apart from its colleagues within the majority organization. Stewards ought to serve as a voice for the collective will of this Section and its members, to undertake those tasks that further embed each member as individuals within the fabric of academic life on terms of equality, mutual respect and dignity. One of the great tasks of a Minority Groups Section is to spread word of the great work of the members of this Section.

Many of the Section’s members have already achieved well-deserved national and international prominence. The Section has an obligation to ensure that other voices within the Section are also provided with greater opportunities to let the world know what they are doing and what they are thinking. The Section’s members are at their best when they seek to serve each other. The Section works its greatest good when it looks for easier ways to share its members’ accumulated knowledge of teaching and the techniques of service and the production of knowledge.

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