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Volume 10, Issue 9
After listening to the election pitches for “diversity” and “representativeness” from this year’s LSS candidates, it became apparent to me that Melbourne Law School has a diversity problem.
I was confronted by the depth of this issue on the very first day I set foot inside the high castle walls of MLS. Upon completion of the celebratory “congratulations, you’ve been admitted into the JD” orientation day pageant put on by MLS administrative heads, I found myself with a small number of fellow black and brown female students, huddling around the table of canapés and pate. At the time, I thought it was a little odd that somehow, as if by some natural centrifugal force, we all ended up talking to each other. I didn’t make too much of it at the time, preferring to think this may just be an uncanny coincidence, and they were all so nice anyway. But I was too generous.
It was the Dean herself who approached our small brown circle and attempted to reassure us that she too had started at this law school as an “outsider”. From that moment it dawned on me that I was perceived as an “outsider”. How many others perceived me as an outsider? What had I done? How noticeable was the demarcation of race, gender and class in this experience? So obvious that it went without saying, except for the Dean of course. If I hadn’t accepted it then, I certainly have come to accept it now.
Now, if the theorists and engineers behind the JD’s marketing philosophy are correct, over time my outsider status should have been converted, and I should now be an accepted member of a community of scholars, law-students and Faculty. But as time has gone on, there are many features of my experience, and from what I have heard from other students, that have indicated quite the contrary.
Perhaps the sharpest experience of what I would call the “conversion failure” happened last semester, when the furore over the enforcement of the JD area policy, and the “law school for law students” snobbery was at fever pitch. Many students, rightly, were and are, frustrated by the lack of space provided to study at the university. But Faculty’s response to expel non-law students has given a licence for prejudice.
I can remember, two days before my administrative law exam, I had arrived at the law school hoping to squeeze in a much needed practice exam. Like other students, I had to battle sleepless nights brought on by noisy neighbours. I thought I could, at the very least, rely on the silence of the JD area. I walked passed the LSS office, and saw some my LSS peers using the office as their study space.
As it was a public holiday, I approached one of the security guards to inquire whether the JD area was open. Without flinching, he looked at me at said, “You’re not going anywhere, you’re not a law student”. I was shocked. I barely managed to ask, “Why would you make that assumption?” At this point, consciousness of guilt drove his behaviour. He knew he had unjustifiably discriminated against me, and not only did he refuse to give me his name, he literally ran away when I asked for it.
I thought I should take his picture, do something, anything! But then I realised I would look slightly mad chasing a security guard with my phone through Level 2 of the MLS. I watched him eventually swan over to the LSS office, where he made sure everything was ok with my fellow students. I was naturally indignant.
My outsider status had clearly remained. I thought, I get it, “I’m not white, and law demands a strong command of English, and a well-developed aptitude for linguistic analysis. This probably puts it well beyond the capacities of ordinary brown folk.” The equations started to align itself in my head; “I must certainly not be a law student!” “Law equals moneyed white person or a moneyed, Ralph Lauren polo-wearing brown student.” … “Maybe I should buy a polo shirt?”
Having seen the week earlier fellow students pride themselves on complaints to security to remove students from the JD area, it dawned on me again, people just did not understand how such an exclusive policy would necessarily have to rely on biases and societal prejudices for its enforcement.
It’s clear that there have been a number of ‘complaints’ about racial discrimination at MLS. Faculty’s response has either channelled such issues into bureaucratic avenues never to be heard of again, or embark on a program of “cultural change” with #HumansofMLS, with little to no avail. In promoting #HumansofMLS, MLS believes itself to be genuinely diverse and wants to reflect this to the world and prospective students. Or, alternatively, MLS believes that by presenting an image to give the appearance of diversity, when there is little in fact, that inverts reality, and will dissipate the problem.
On this first view, MLS feels it has unduly attracted a poor reputation. But look around you; Australia’s population, in fact at least, is fairly ethnically diverse. Compare that with the ethnic diversity of MLS’ JD cohort. MLS’ reality is like the upside-down world in ‘Stranger Things’ - the dark, freezing, and decaying alternate universe that is contrary to the natural order.
As regards to the second view: Do the geniuses behind #HumansofMLS have any idea about the views and behaviours of some of the poster children of this campaign? The hypocrisy is staggering. But hang on; as long as we have a giant picture of a football, you can’t seriously take issue with that! What a sore loser! The endeavour is really a sick joke.
Don’t get me wrong, I love learning all about the law, it’s an intellectually engaging and powerful experience and I wouldn’t stop studying it because of these experiences - my intellectual commitments and curiosity run too deep.
But my own experiences are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to diversity and they are really just an extension of an entire institution built on the foundations of exclusion. The whole impetus behind the Melbourne JD, the dissolution of undergraduate law, and the introduction of the LSAT set the scene for erecting higher castle walls around MLS. Studies from the USA (here & here) indicate that where the LSAT is heavily relied upon in admissions criteria, under-represented communities, including African-Americans, Hispanics and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, despite being otherwise qualified, have a significantly lower chance of acceptance into law schools. It is not such a leap to understand these same dynamics in the Australian context. The removal of the personal statement from MLS selection criteria last year has only increased the focus on high LSAT scores.
Admission to MLS is a marker of something; it’s just not merit. It’s a marker of students with historically high levels of socio-economic stability, and their flow on effects, adequate study time, financial support from families, a culture of veneration for the student’s chosen academic pursuit, and equally important, the relative freedom experienced from the fetters of day-to-day discrimination. Is it any wonder that “diversity” is such a problem at MLS?
Where is MLS’ and LSS’ advocacy of measures that materially deal with these barriers - discriminatory admissions criteria, inadequate youth allowance, paltry numbers on HECS places, $100,000 degrees in a legal market confounded by few opportunities. It’s obscene.
There’s clearly an ugly underbelly to MLS. Free lunches, “R U OK days”, wilder parties, undiscerning photo bombing of MLS’ walls, and Riley the dog, are not going to overcome these issues. The depth of MLS’ diversity problem runs deep, and by all indications, it’s not going away any time soon.
Jasmine Ali is a second-year JD Student