How Suffolk University is responding
to the coronavirus outbreak
Photographs by Michael J. Clarke (2) and courtesy of Dayana Donisca
By Michael Fisch
Against the backdrop of one of the largest national civil rights movements in generations, a seemingly endless list of Black victims of police brutality, the exposure of pandemic-related health disparities, and a resurgence of the white supremacist movement, Suffolk Law is reckoning with systemic racism.
In a letter to Suffolk Law students on June 19, Dean Andrew Perlman wrote the following:
“Today is Juneteenth, a day when we commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. We can use this moment to reflect on how far we still have to go to remedy slavery’s horrific and enduring legacy and to address the profound and deep problem of racial injustice in our country. As a law school, we have a special obligation to pursue justice, to right wrongs when we see them, and to make an impact, not only in the broader community but in our own as well.
“Too often the burden of seeking change falls on those who have been most disadvantaged by the status quo. This must change. We all have an obligation, especially as future legal professionals, to address injustices where we see them. This is our shared obligation. I look forward to working with all of you in the weeks and months ahead to bring about real, meaningful change, both in our broader communities and within our own.”
Giving top leaders at the school a key role in recommending practical steps for the institution in these areas has been a priority for Dean Perlman. This past spring, he launched a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Steering Committee chaired by three academic deans and comprising the faculty chairs of key standing committees.
These academic leaders will work with the existing DEI Faculty Committee and other standing faculty committees to develop proposals for improvement in the areas of curricular change, cultural competency of faculty and students, admissions, recruitment and retention efforts, scholarships, hiring, and more. While many of the outcomes will take more than one academic year to implement, the steering committee has already begun its work, and concrete proposals will be put forward to the faculty for approval and implementation as early as spring 2021.
Cherina D. Wright JD/MBA’17 has been named the first assistant dean of DEI, building on her previous work as director of student engagement and inclusion. In this new role, Wright will provide strategic direction for the Law School’s DEI efforts and will work closely with various institutional stakeholders, including students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Starting this past summer, Wright has been leading all of the deans in monthly town hall meetings with students and faculty to address issues that are on the minds of student leaders of color, with upcoming topics including Suffolk’s admissions and scholarship processes.
A recent town hall featured the co-chairs of the faculty curriculum committee. The co-chairs and deans addressed questions about the Suffolk Law curriculum, including how courses are chosen, what is taught in each course, and how faculty are encouraged to intentionally address issues of systemic racism, such as redlining and for-profit prisons.
“When a student asks a faculty leader in a public forum, ‘Should a property law class address redlining?’ there’s a great sense of immediacy and urgency to that question,” says Wright. “It’s been a great experience for all sides—for the students to have direct access to faculty leaders, to hear their opinions, and for the faculty to hear directly from students. We’re having these hard conversations as a community rather than in our siloes, and that’s an important first step.”
Wright says that the national racial justice protest movement has been important in gaining traction for much broader conversations about race: “More people today are listening and open to talking about difficult DEI issues, but people should know that the Law School’s DEI Faculty Committee has been working hard for many years. They’ve been helping colleagues improve classroom culture, offering suggestions to better integrate DEI matters into law classes, and training faculty on microaggressions and implicit bias.”
Wright adds that the Progress to Success: Diversity Peer Mentorship Program has grown exponentially over the last few years to provide a full calendar of programming, ranging from social spaces for students to find community to professional development workshops and academic enrichment.
Cherina D. Wright
This summer’s protests compelled both the DEI Faculty Committee and the Student Bar Association to create documents laying out recommendations for change. The Steering Committee will use these two key documents to help drive its work in coming months. “I want to make public, as I have several times,” Dean Perlman says, “that studying proposals won’t be enough. The times demand action, and that is my expectation. I’m committed to finding ways to implement as many of the community recommendations as possible. Our school can do better, and we will be a force for change.”
Elected this year as president of Suffolk Law’s Student Bar Association (SBA), Dayana Donisca, Class of 2021, is the second Black woman to serve in the role. She has led a critical conversation around DEI. In honor of Juneteenth, she spearheaded an SBA virtual town hall, where professors Renée M. Landers and Karen M. Blum JD’74 and adjunct professor Judge Michael C. Bolden JD’78 presented on legal and social issues connected with systemic racism. On October 22, Donisca was honored as a racial equity champion by the Suffolk University Black Alumni Network, which highlighted her advocacy work at Suffolk, North Carolina’s Queens University of Charlotte, and the AmeriCorps program in Baltimore.
When asked about the DEI work ahead for the Law School, Professor Maurice R. Dyson, co-chair of the Faculty DEI Committee, turned to the words of American artist William Merritt Chace: “Diversity ... is not casual liberal tolerance of anything not yourself. It is not polite accommodation. Instead, diversity is, in action, the sometimes painful awareness that other people, other races, other voices, other habits of mind have as much integrity of being, as much claim on the world as you do.”
“As long as we can see ourselves in each other’s hopes and ambitions,” Dyson says, “and respect each other’s equal right to occupy a life with the same dignity that we want for ourselves, then change is possible. I believe we can rise to meet this historic moment with the solemn, sustained commitment it deserves and requires.”
Expanding our existing antiracism, implicit bias, and LGBTQ+ inclusion orientation trainings for new law students and the entire Suffolk community.
Expanding access to justice through our 12 nationally ranked clinical programs. Our newest Transactional Clinic supports nonprofits and businesses that are committed to economic equity.
Appointing a newly created Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to spearhead DEI initiatives throughout the Law School.
More than 1/3 of Suffolk Law’s 11 deans are people of color and more than 60% are women. Suffolk Law elected its second Black female Student Bar Association president in 2020.
Supporting first-generation students and students from underrepresented backgrounds through our First-Generation Law Students organization and networking opportunities with first-generation alumni.
Expanding our curriculum with new courses that examine diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and the law’s relation to systemic injustice and inequality; enhancing our existing areas of focus in Diversity and Social Justice and Civil Rights & Human Rights Law.
Inspiring diverse and underrepresented high schoolers in law student-coached trial competitions in the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Law Program.
The Suffolk University Black Alumni Network (SUBAN) serves current and future Black alumni through mentoring, philanthropy, volunteerism, and events. The SUBAN Scholarship Fund supports Suffolk students with a demonstrated interest in serving under-represented communities.
Making the Law School faculty and staff more diverse by changing our hiring practices—minimizing the potential influence of implicit biases and maximizing our efforts to attract and recruit diverse candidates.
Celebrating a more inclusive community with over a dozen affinity groups that support students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds through multiple programs: Diversity Week, diversity receptions, anti-racism panels, and an alumni speaker series.
Growing our Diversity Peer Mentoring Program by including more students and new initiatives. Also offering more safe social spaces, professional development workshops, and academic enrichment through the Student Bar Association’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee.
Providing scholarships for students from historically Black colleges & universities (HBCUs), as well as for first generation students from Boston-area colleges.