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The Culture of Jumping To Conclusions At Widener Law School

The Culture of Jumping To Conclusions At Widener Law School

There is a controversy at Widener Law School regarding calls for the dismissal of a law professor who, in trying to get the students to understand the law, used a hypothetical example in criminal law class in which the professor killed the Dean.

As argued by law professors Glenn Reynolds, Ann Althouse, and Eugene Volokh, the reaction seems overdone, since no one reasonably could believe that the professor was actually calling for the killing of the Dean, and use of sometimes outrageous hypotheticals is what law professors do in class.

The issue of race also is involved because the professor is white and the Dean is black, and there were unspecified accusations made anonymously by students that the professor made racist and sexist comments.

The school said it would permit the professor to stay, but only if he recanted, which he refused to do:

[Law professor Lawrence] Connell refused, believing it would amount to admitting racism, among other things, [attorney Thomas] Neuberger said. Connell also believes the accusation runs contrary to one of the most significant cases of his legal career. In the 1980s, he appealed the death sentence of James Riley, a black man convicted by an all-white jury of killing a Dover liquor store clerk. Connell helped uncover racial bias in Kent County’s jury-selection process. The appeal led to a retrial in which Riley received a sentence of life in prison rather than the death penalty.

“It is contrary to every fiber of my being to mistreat any person because of the color of his or her skin,” Connell wrote to Kelly in a Dec. 22 letter, which he also forwarded to the entire faculty. “I devoted 15 years to trying to save the life of a black man. … I spent months in the dusty basement of the Kent County Court House, searching through dozens of boxes of years’ worth of jury qualification forms.”

There seems to be a problem at Widener.

Remember, Widener is the law school which hosted the debate between Christine O’Donnell and Chris Coons.  The crowd of law students erupted in mocking laughter and indignation when O’Donnell challenged Yale law graduate Coons to point out where in the Constitution there was a separation of church and state.

Watch the video below beginning at 1:40:

But as pointed out here and at Instapundit, O’Donnell was right and the Widener law student crowd was wrong.  The doctrine of “separation of church and state” is a judicially created doctrine.

Perhaps there is a culture of jumping to conclusions at Widener. 

My suggestion: Everyone take a deep breath, calm down, think through the problem, and write a 15-page paper on the topic of “legal reasoning in a world of political correctness.”

Update:  I also should have linked this Ann Althouse critique of the Widener crowd reaction during the debate:

A word needs to be said about the mocking laughter that instantly erupted from the law students in the audience. Presumably, that sound meant we are smart and you are dumb. Where did they learn to treat a guest at their law school — Widener Law School — with such disrespect? They hooted O’Donnell down, and she never got a chance to explain her point. What does that say about the climate for debate in law schools? Not only did they feel energized to squelch the guest they politically opposed, but they felt sure of their own understanding of the law….

What is the atmosphere at Widener? Is there no intellectual curiosity? No love of debate? No grasp of how complex constitutional law problems can be?

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Comments

1. Sometimes university administrators jump at any pretext to get rid of a faculty member who is on their **** list. Just sayin'..

2. Thanks for the reminder about O'Donnell and Widener.

Based on my experience with attorneys over close to 30 years as a legal secretary and paralegal, expecting a paper on "legal reasoning in a world of political correctness" is a fruitless expectation.

But hey, you can ASK – – just don't expect to receive.

Widener Law School received scathing criticism over the earlier controversy with Christine O'Donnell's correct statement. Now they bring more ridicule upon themselves for taking "unspecified accusations made anonymously by students that the professor made racist and sexist comments" as reason to dismiss an obviously well-qualified professor of law.

Sounds like time to dismiss some administrators of the law school. After they "write a 15-page paper on the topic of 'legal reasoning in a world of political correctness.'", it will be clear which ones need the boot.

sort of runic rhyme | February 17, 2011 at 10:18 am

There is the gavel and then there is the court of public opinion. It's disheartening that it's come to a "some of my best clients are black" defense in the harsher latter.

What if one is NOT a racist/sexist/homophobe/classist/Chrisitanist xenophobe but can't give real life examples of crusading for blacks/women/gays/the poor/Muslims, etc? Something's wrong when professionals and the commentariat are having to offer resumes regarding their PC sensitivities and experiences to thwart any accusation of thought crime.

Me– I'm OK b/c I've hired black a professional and lesbian contractor, worked for a black boss, have known and liked a gay man, gave money to homeless locals, like some rap and Latino music, and one of my best school friends forty years ago was Muslim. AND, I used to recycle.

The problem is he is a white male. It doesn't matter what he says or does. Remember how Larry Summers lost his job as Harvard president?

How about a paper about hiring deans based on political correctness and racialist criteria? An appendix on their overreaction to perceived slights would be for extra credit.

Widener is pretty much a joke of a school in all aspects. The term "degree mill" comes to mind. I interviewed there for a faculty position back in the '80s and was utterly appalled at what a poorly run school it was.

In law school rankings, Widener has to be last. The O'Donnell video was the coffin, this latest fiasco the nail.

I know the type of students they get: chip-on-the shoulder, smug, angry libs who think they are much smarter than they really are. I know the type too well.

Another case of "it's not what they don't know that's appalling; it's what they know that just isn't so".

We ethics profs use disturbing hypos, too. I could imagine a case in which the students were right to blow the whistle. Suppose the guy's hypos went well beyond disturbing and into the territory of psychotic behavior. Suppose he were to give a completely irrelevant, ten-minute-long, angry description of torturing his victim before murdering her.

It would be a relief to discover that that's all that is going on here, rather than a oppression of free speech. Doesn't seem likely.

Being a lifelong professional student, I can say from extended experience that, ironic as it may seem, the university classroom can have one of the most uncomfortable, oppressive atmospheres to be found on earth.

The reaction of the Widener students makes me think of the mob in Egypt; enjoying a romanticized image, but in reality often populated by many intolerant thugs. The atmosphere only serves to make them more self-righteous.

A few years ago I was in a graduate program in geography. Only two students from that program are memorable. Both were immigrants to America; a young muslim lady from Bangladesh and a young Israeli man.

In one seminar, the professor jumped up on his soapbox and went after Bush and America's "Islamophobia," and our root responsibility for 9/11, etc. The young muslim lady raised her hand and you could see the look of smug anticipation of corroboration on the professor's face. She proceeded to yank the soapbox from under his feet by saying America was the victim, not in any way the perpetrator, and that terrorists were nothing but pure evil. He looked like he wanted to slug her. I could have kissed her.

In another seminar, a student from South America engaged in some de rigueur America bashing during his powerpoint presentation. I felt plenty irritated but after a long day at work felt too tired to take on the class. When the professor opened up discussion after the student's presentation, the Israeli guy, who was sitting next to me, skewered his adolescent anti-Americanism … and with such panache that nobody, including the professor, challenged him. I could have kissed him, too, but I just leaned over and quietly said, "Be careful Menschy, they turn our type into Soylent Green on this campus."

I am reminded of a phrase from William Butler Yeats' Second Coming:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The worst, in this case, being the Widener Law School students.

AceThe Ace of Spades HQ:

Oh by the way: Don't laugh too hard, Widener Law School students. For one thing, check your enrollment: You're at Widener F^%$&&g; Law School. You aren't really law students and you won't really be lawyers.

Sorry. But if we're going to play the credentials game, I have to inform you, you're not credentialed, at least in the eyes of anyone who actually is credentialed from a real law school.

max's skunk works | February 17, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Actually JJ, you're right. Widener is typically ranked at the bottom of the 4th tier schools.

Truthfully Widener Law is to legal education what IHOP is to transnational institutions.

It's possible that Connell really did step over the line, but knowing the make up of the school, as likely that the accusations against him are racially a/o politically motivated.

Something that the Widener administration, and crusading students, need to consider is that they are actually undermining minority administrators by associating them w/ this sort of jeopardy.

@ JJ (and now the rest who are jumping on the bandwagon)

While it is true that there are plenty of smug, angry, anti-conservative (surely beliefs held over from undergrad!) lefties on that campus, there are a small but noticeable group of conservative, libertarian, and radical laissez-faire capitalists who attend, too.

The university prides itself on diversity, but diversity there, like any graduate studies institution, does not account for ideology. And so, Connell, one of two outspoken conservative professors on that campus, was bound to say something that would initiate offense in the mind of a everything-is-racist/everything-is-sexist student. It was a matter of time. Really. To borrow a phrase from the great author of this blog, Connell's hypothetical did not "fit the narrative." And so this is the result.

If it makes any difference, the majority of professors there, liberal in mindset, have a bit more respect for the right-of-center students who share in their passion for exploring the law – as opposed to many of the liberals in the student body who do not possess such inquisitive minds (and who are better at regurgitation).

You may have heard the boisterous happy-clappy liberals on that video, but you did not hear those who remained silent. And you most certainly have not heard the growing anger of the students who do not support what is happening to this professor.

@DrD: Degree Mill? Maybe back in the 80's.

ic is right. No matter what the situation, the prof is certainly guilty of "being male while white".

I hardly know what is worse: the contempt and arrogance (let alone the ignorance underlying these attitudes) shown by these students; or the fact the they felt so entitled and comfortable in expressing them at all.

Even with the results of the wonderfully instructive 2010 elections available to enlighten about the attitudes, beliefs and ideals of mainstream America, they still haven't caught on to how offensive their smug, elitist sense of entitlement is to the vast majority of Americans.

Jim Ryan: maybe, but I doubt it. I, myself, have been "killed" by a professor, and I wasn't even a law student. It was an intro to Roman History course where the professor was using the conceit of a contemporary Roman tourist group to teach the geography, then slaughtered the whole class while visiting the slave depot at Delos. It's one way to wake up a drowsing classroom…

I'm afraid we already heard the verdict from Kourt Kommissar Price in Dallas. "You're white. Go to hell!"

@ the bandwagoners who are feigning outrage at the boisterous happy-clappy liberal students at that school: you base your judgment on what you heard, not the silent ones who were just as disappointed as anyone else at their conduct. You base your judgment on those who purposefully went to the debate to see if they could mock and deride one of the conservative candidates, not the student body as a whole.

The truth is, there are quite a number of conservative, libertarian, and laissez-faire capitalists who are in that student body. It is equally true, as is in all institutions of graduate studies, that there are a quite a number of liberals of varying degrees. (yeah no joke!).

One need only look at the differences in conduct between the right-of-center and the left-of-center groups across the country to inform one's opinion of what happened. In short, liberals acting like liberals. But to watch a clip and condemn a student body and a school based on the acts of the liberals who were there while disregarding those who remained silent and civil is asinine in my book.

Unfortunately I cannot locate a video recording of the presentation given by Jeff Benedict and Susette Kelo. The crowd's reaction was very positive and civil. But minds have already been made up, it seems.

@ the bandwagoners who are feigning outrage at the boisterous happy-clappy liberal students at that school: you base your judgment on what you heard, not the silent ones who were just as disappointed as anyone else at their conduct. You base your judgment on those who purposefully went to the debate to see if they could mock and deride one of the conservative candidates, not the student body as a whole.

The truth is, there are quite a number of conservative, libertarian, and laissez-faire capitalists who are in that student body. It is equally true, as is in all institutions of graduate studies, that there are a quite a number of liberals of varying degrees. (yeah no joke!).

One need only look at the differences in conduct between the right-of-center and the left-of-center groups across the country to inform one's opinion of what happened. In short, liberals acting like liberals. But to watch a clip and condemn a student body and a school based on the acts of the liberals who were there while disregarding those who remained silent and civil is asinine in my book.

Unfortunately I cannot locate a video recording of the presentation given by Jeff Benedict and Susette Kelo. The crowd's reaction was very positive and civil. But minds have already been made up, it seems.

Regarding Connell, I have no doubts that at some point this was going to happen, given that he's one of two outspoken conservative profs on that campus. (there may be others who conceal their beliefs). Eventually, a smug left-winger who believes everything-is-racist and everything-is-sexist was going to take offense to hypotheticals and see it as opportunity to correct historical slights. After all, when speech does not fit the leftist 'narrative', it's likely to be attacked.

Judging the students for the conduct exhibited by liberals and ignoring the unseen and unheard reaction of others. Judging the school by the conduct of the faculty review board while there is growing anger at how the Dean and the committee are handling this. I'm not here to convince you that this school is a pillar of conservative thought or that the student body will end up at Heritage or Cato…but, I ask, who exactly is jumping to conclusions?

Re: O'Donnell – I wasn't impressed with her in the slightest. No gravitas. Must have thought she could ride on Palin's coattails (or pantsuit tails…whatever).

@ DrD: there is no question you could have made that case in the 80's. But now? Nah.

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