Proposed display prompts unexpected debate in law school
Third-year staff writer Eric Ditmore chronicles the discussions and decisions surrounding a forthcoming display in honor of African-Americans in the North Carolina Judiciary.
On the first floor of Campbell University’s Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law, there is a hallway display of historic photographs and artifacts. The museum-esque exhibition covers the progression of women in the North Carolina judiciary. Judge Susie M. Sharp initiates the history lesson with her groundbreaking appointment as a Superior Court Judge. As one progresses down the hallway, one learns that in 1966, Mary Whitener became the first female elected judge in North Carolina. The display concludes with Sarah Parker becoming the first woman to be elected to both the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court. The exhibition originally told its story on a wall at the North Carolina Supreme Court. When the North Carolina Supreme Court Historical Society decided to move the collection, it found a new home at Campbell Law School.
Every day, students passed the display on their way to classes, not questioning its purpose. When a second display was proposed, however, students began to ask questions. Campbell Law School’s Dean, Rich Leonard, initiated the conversation at the October 9, 2017 meeting of the school’s Student Bar Association (SBA). He asked the SBA to consider donating $10,000 toward the creation of a display on the first floor that would display the journey of African Americans in the North Carolina judiciary. The SBA was also informed that if it donated the $10,000, the school’s alumni association would match the donation.
Some students expressed concerns about the lack of policy for class gifts.
The following Friday, the SBA’s budget committee met, and the topic of providing funds for the new display was eventually discussed. Some students expressed concerns about the lack of a policy for class gifts. In years past, SBA had assisted with class gifts, typically on a smaller scale, and in some cases, were only done to assist other groups with finalizing a class gift. In other years there had been no class gift at all.
Discussion of the display at the budget committee meeting rolled into the next regular meeting of the Student Bar Association on October 16. The meeting began with Terrie Nelson, the SBA President, suggesting that the SBA allocate the $10,000 from its general fund. Providing the funds this way would have allowed the SBA to avoid some budget committee procedures and allowed the class of 2018 to choose their own gift. A motion was made at the meeting to provide the funds in this manner. That motion initiated a discussion that lasted the rest of the lunch hour.
Some council members expressed a wide variety of concerns, while others offered support. Concerns included the cost, the lack of a class gift policy in the SBA Constitution, as well as the lack of funds for a class gift if the project was approved. Other students asked why the law school’s Alumni Association made its contribution contingent on SBA’s. Even some expressed a belief that the project may have been related to a pending racial discrimination lawsuit that was recently filed by former Campbell Law Professor Amos Jones. At the height of the discussion, Nichad Davis, SBA Vice President and meeting facilitator, asked the entire council a question. Davis asked if anyone was opposed to the project itself. No one on the council responded, indicating that their concerns lied outside of the proposed display’s actual content. The meeting concluded with a separate motion to have the council vote on funding the project at the beginning of the following week’s meeting, without any further discussion.
As word of the meeting and the proposed project spread around the school, similar conversations could be heard all over campus. Latasia Fields, a third year African-American student, expressed concern that the display might not be the most productive way to express equality, in that the proposed idea singled out one race. Jonathan Woodruff, President of the school’s Black Law Student Association and member of the SBA Council, stated he believed the exhibit would be welcoming to prospective minority students who toured the campus. Woodruff believed that the relatively small present minority population at the law school made recruiting minority students more difficult. Other students discussed budget issues and whether the SBA budget could even such a donation. The situation with Professor Jones found its way into many of the conversations.
While the exhibition honoring pioneering African-American judges in North Carolina seemed to have support on campus, the project also seemed to provoke some questions worth asking. In an interview with the Campbell Law Observer on October 26, 2017, a candid Dean Leonard answered many of those questions. Dean Leonard explained that upon his arrival at the law school, he quickly noticed the numerous barren walls throughout the school. The Women in the Judiciary display, along with several paintings from prominent local artists, were the products of the Dean’s initial efforts to remedy the wasted walls. He explained that the Women in the Judiciary exhibit prompted the question, “Who else should we be honoring?” Dean Leonard went on to state that African-Americans seemed to be the obvious answer and that, “in many ways they had it even harder than women.”
Dean Leonard recalled listening to the confirmation hearing of Richard Erwin, the first black federal judge in North Carolina, to the Federal Bench in 1980 and some of the inappropriate comments made by congressmen during the hearings. He also described inheriting a “lily-white staff” when he was appointed to the federal bench. He was pleased to note that 25% of his staff consisted of minorities by the time he left.
After completion of the African-American Judges in North Carolina exhibition, he wants to move on to a display dedicated to prominent Campbell Law graduates in the judiciary.
During the interview, Dean Leonard also explained his vision for the future. After completion of the African-American Judges in North Carolina exhibition, he wants to move on to a display dedicated to prominent Campbell Law graduates in the judiciary. He also expressed his desire to recruit more minority and foreign students.
The interview concluded with perhaps the hardest question—whether this was a pre-litigation measure for the lawsuit filed by former professor Amos Jones. Dean Leonard’s disappointment with the situation was clear. The Dean, through recommendation of legal counsel, declined to discuss the case. He did, however, suggest that the Observer speak to the Campbell Alumni Association, as well as North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson. He also offered to provide emails showing that the display had actually been on the radar for a couple of years.
Assistant Dean Megan Sherron, the law school’s contact for the Alumni Association, spoke to the Observer later in the day on October 26. Dean Sherron explained that the Alumni Association had made its gift contingent on a matching gift from the Student Bar Association because it was concerned about being one of a large group of donors to fund the project. The Association felt that if it partnered with SBA, it could keep the donor base to a minimum and the generosity of the donations would be better emphasized. Dean Sherron went on to confirm that she had personally discussed the project with Dean Leonard a year prior and that she believed the Alumni Association’s meeting minutes would show that the Dean had spoken to the group nearly two years prior about the project.
Dean Leonard explained…he had only wished to give the SBA an opportunity to participate in the project.
The meeting of the Student Bar Association on October 23 led to a decision that the organization could not afford to appropriate the amount of money that had been requested at that time. Dean Leonard explained that the display would still be funded, and that he had only wished to give the SBA an opportunity to participate in the project. Soon after, Assistant Dean Sherron noted that the Alumni Association had met on October 26 and updated their offer. They would no longer be making their offer contingent on SBA, and would now make the offer with the only condition being that Dean Leonard keep the number of donors to a minimum.
The discussions surrounding the proposed display reveal the complexities that accompany any discussion involving race; however, it also seems that progress can be made when those complex discussions occur. With the display on the way, perhaps we will see a more welcoming environment conducive to increased diversity at the law school.