Seattle Law School Fails To Condemn Fabricated Accusations Against Prof. Bernie Burk
Recordings and transcripts prove the professor never “designated Brown students as terrorists” or “called Native Americans savages on the first day of class,” as an anonymous student claimed in the student newspaper. Prof. Burk: “As far as I know, the law school and university administration have made no clear public statement condemning the anonymous accusations now proven false….”
At Legal Insurrection we have covered dozens of instances of false or misleading claims of racism and other “-isms” against professors and others by student and campus activists. Our ability to shine a light has won widespread praise. Some professors have been fired, others ‘merely’ harassed and tormented. Frequently, weak administrations kowtow to student and activist fabrications and prevarications, rather than standing up for truth.
I’m not sure I’ve seen a case like that of law professor Bernard (“Bernie”) Burk at Seattle University School of Law. It’s one of those rare cases where there are recordings of the alleged offensive statements, and those recordings show Prof. Burk never made the key statements in question.
I first read about Prof. Burk at the invaluable TaxProf Blog run by Pepperdine Law Dean Paul Caron. I don’t know Prof. Burk, but he followed a path similar to mine, practicing law for over 20 years before moving to teaching:
Visiting Professor Bernie Burk spent 25 years as a practicing lawyer at a larger firm in San Francisco before transitioning to law teaching in 2010. He has taught at a number of law schools around the country since then. Prof. Burk will be teaching Civil Procedure, Remedies, and Sales this year at SeattleU, and can’t wait to get started. He also teaches Professional Responsibility, Contracts, Conflicts of Laws, and litigation skills courses.
Prof. Burk publishes in the areas of Legal Ethics, the Legal Profession, and Legal Education, and recently published a Professional Responsibility textbook through Aspen Press entitled Ethical Lawyering: A Guide for the Well-Intentioned. He’s also a regular contributor at The Faculty Lounge blog, www.thefacultylounge.org. He serves as a consultant and expert witness in Professional Responsibility and Professional Conduct matters, and has provided pro bono support to legal aid organizations on regulatory and ethics issues.
The controversy all started with a story at the Seattle Spectator student newspaper on January 18, 2023, First Year Law Students Allege Discrimination in the Classroom. The article is based on information provided by three anonymous first year students. The key accusation from anonymous student no. 2 quoted in the article was that Prof. Burk made these specific statements;
“He designated Brown students as terrorists,” a second anonymous first-year law student said. “He called Native Americans savages on the first day of class.”
Burk denied making those statements. The other accusations were more amorphous, having to do with student feelings and how Prof. Burk evaluated students in class. These complaints, the article noted, were not universally shared among students (emphasis added):
The second anonymous student also observed that Burk’s classroom recognition and awards failed to include students of color.
“He has this thing called Geek of the Week,” the student said. “No BIPOC was ever selected for Geek of the Week until we had a student go up and tell him that was unacceptable. Then, he elected two the next week.”
Beyond allegations of racially discriminatory treatment, the students shared stories of sexist and ableist incidents and a joke about gun violence that frightened some students. Students felt that Burk did not treat female-identifying students equally, did not give adequate disability accommodations and made comments patronizing students struggling with mental illness.
“Professor Burk has spouted hateful and discriminatory comments towards womxn, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students, so much so, that we no longer feel safe in our classroom, and we have lost faith in the administration’s competency in handling these matters,” a group of first-year law students wrote in a statement. “This professor uses racial slurs, stymies classroom participation by yelling predominantly at womxn and discriminates against students with school-approved accommodations.”
The controversy surrounding Burk’s classroom has created significant division among the first-year law student body. According to the students, it has spawned rival groups among the class, with high tensions between those who do not see a problem with Burk’s teaching and those who feel uncomfortable being in the classroom.
Andrew Siegel, vice dean for academic affairs at the Seattle U School of Law, noted a wide range of opinions on the subject among first-year law students.
“Many students liked the class from the beginning,” Siegel said. “Many of the students who had concerns about the class have specifically said that initiatives we took have improved the experience.”
Additionally, there apparently was great disagreement with those accusations expressed in the comments to the Spectator article, but the comments were removed (unfortunately, they are not archived, at least not that I could find):
Editor’s Note (1/27/23): Due to unfortunate comments of a threatening nature against both Professor Burk and the anonymous sources in question, The Spectator has turned off comments on this feature.
An expedited investigation was launched (emphasis added):
Now Dean Anthony Varona is communicating with the law school community that an internal probe is underway. Noting Burk’s “strenuous” denial, Varona said that some of the serious allegations detailed in the Spectator were never reported to the administration:
Varona added that, while complaints had been made about Burk throughout the semester, “[s]ome of the most serious allegations reported by the Spectator, however, had not been shared with us at all during the fall semester.”
“Our Office of Academic Affairs worked directly with Professor Burk throughout the fall semester to address and resolve various students’ concerns,” adding that in late October the University’s Campus Climate Incident Reporting & Response Team received various reports from students in the course, to which the team responded and engaged the Seattle University Office of Institutional Equity as appropriate.
Varona also noted, “we asked the Office of Institutional Equity to conduct an expedited inquiry to determine the accuracy of two of the most serious allegations reported in the Spectator.”
None of the alleged slurs, etc., are specific, except the two about “He designated Brown students as terrorists,” and “He called Native Americans savages on the first day of class.” That accusation was from the same anonymous student who complained about the racial distribution of “Geek of the Week” awards.
Whether those statements were made is not a matter of opinion, or feelings. The classes were recorded, and Law School Dean Anthony Varona issued a statement, reprinted in the student newspaper, finding that there is no evidence from the recordings that the two statements ever were made (emphasis added):
I write to provide an update to my message from Monday morning about the January 18th Seattle Spectator article focusing on Professor Burk’s fall Civil Procedure course. As I shared with you, we had arranged for an expedited inquiry by the University’s Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) into the accuracy of the two most serious allegations reported by the Spectator (i.e., that Professor Burk “called Native Americans savages on the first day of class” and that he “designated Brown students as terrorists”).
The OIE’s expedited inquiry involved the review of over five hours of relevant class recordings, including the entire first class, and a review of class transcripts. The inquiry concluded that the alleged statements were nowhere in the reviewed recordings or transcripts. Professor Burk neither called Native Americans “savages” nor “Brown students…terrorists.”
Later in the statement, Dean Varona called the specific accusations in question “unsubstantiated.” Which is a nice way of saying the student in question lied in order to damage Prof. Burk. The evidence be damned, the student is sticking to his or her story: “The anonymous source has confirmed that they stand by the relevant quotation as reported.” A future leader of the Bar, no doubt.
So what is this all really about. The original Spectator article gives a very strong hint – Some students felt the course was too hard and too much work:
Aside from worries about bias, some students found Burk’s teaching style to be ineffective. One student felt time commitments required in the class were unreasonable and made success challenging. Required meetings, unannounced extensions of class time, readings and homework added up to a crushing workload.
“For a five credit class, you’re only supposed to be spending 10 hours outside of class to do this work,” the second anonymous student said. “[Burk’s mandatory preparation] takes upwards of 12 to 13 hours, which greatly exceeds American Bar Association requirements.”
Burk believed that his assigned preparatory material was necessary to prepare students for advanced work in their later semesters.
“Seattle U Law makes Civil Procedure the heaviest course in the first-term curriculum—five credit hours, which is between a half and a third of the entire first-term courseload,” Burk wrote to the Spectator. “The volume of material the Law School expects the course to cover is correspondingly substantial, and a great deal of reading and preparation is necessary for every class.”
The disconnect between the expectations of professors and faculty may extend into the wider field of education. Varona highlighted the challenges faced by some legal faculty in adjusting to changing needs of students.
“I don’t find some of these [student] concerns to be entirely unusual,” Varona said. “Particularly, over the last few years, I have been involved in helping some colleagues learn how to evolve their teaching and how to grow in their pedagogical approach to meet the needs of our students today.” …
“It is possible that everyone is coming into the classroom with good faith and with good intentions, but still there is a mismatch between expectations and needs of current students and the approach of a faculty member that might not be as effective today as it once was,” Varona said.
Burk expressed confidence in his teaching style, citing its widespread use among legal faculty.
“The structure I use is not unique or original to me, and I’ve used it successfully for a dozen years. Variations are in use all over the country, including by some members of the faculty here,” Burk wrote.
So a small number of students who feel a law school course is too hard and too much work complain that various “-isms” are the problem rather than their own inability to handle the workload. This is my shocked face.
I reached out to Dean Varona for comment, asking specifically about his lack of condemnation of the student lying:
“I read about the Bernie Burk situation first at TaxProfBlog, and then the links at the Spectator, including your statement that recordings of the classes did not reflect any of the alleged statements. Is there anything you can add to that? While it’s important that you publicly exonerated Prof. Burk, that exoneration was not a condemnation of the false accusations — will any of the students who made the false accusations face any repercussions?”
“I do not have anything to add to my last public statement, sharing the results of the expedited inquiry.”
I also reached out to Prof. Burk, who provided this statement (emphasis added):
The anonymous students’ accusations that are specific enough to address have been conclusively disproved by class videorecordings. The accusers are persisting anyway. The school newspaper reports that one of the students whose accusations were decisively refuted by a formal investigation, an investigation that reviewed the actual class recordings, has stated to the paper that “they stand by the relevant statement as quoted.”
When comments posted to the online story began to accumulate, many calling out the accusations as false and questioning the integrity of the school paper’s reporting, an anonymous poster responded to one of those comments with a threat, stating “We know who you are,” and calling the commenter racist. Instead of just deleting the threatening post, the paper has wiped all comments off the website, leaving only its content and Dean Varona’s Letter to the Editor. Now, the only permitted response to the school paper’s content on the subject is a “thumbs-up.” Other stories on the paper’s website continue to allow readers to post comments.
As far as I know, the law school and university administration have made no clear public statement condemning the anonymous accusations now proven false or the anonymous online threat leveled against a student who called them out as such.
Prof. Burk is just more collateral damage in the pathetic self-absorbed world of the campus gripe industry. His situation is not unique, and in some ways better than most, because the classes were recorded. Personally, I’m thrilled that my classes are recorded. I’m not worried about defending what I actually say, I do worry — along with many professors — about fabrications.
Is it over for Prof. Burk? It’s never really over, is it?
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Our society is crumbling faster than we can plug holes…
There is no reason that this specific problem cannot be fixed by brooming the student(s) making false accusations. I have no doubt that they come from a crap culture of sub normal IQ & that they are lazy.
Take the freaking gloves off.
Student libels you, where there is video evidence refuting the allegation? Sue them into oblivion. Ruin them economically. File objections with every state bar where they seek to be admitted.
Then make the rubble bounce.
These are law students.
Do we want to teach law students that there are no repercussions for breaking the law?
Give this one an intimate encounter with the law, good and hard.
Good, hard and very public.
Sue whom? The accuser is anonymous. The editor, in the so-called “best traditions” of the news industry, will undoubtedly refuse to reveal the accuser’s identity, because that is what his fellow reporters have established as the “ethical” thing to do, and not only do courts let them get away with it, but in many states the law has given in to their flim-flam and has granted them this special privilege of immunity to the duty every one else has to testify if subpoenaed. The newspaper itself can’t be sued because it did not report the allegations as fact, but merely as what someone is alleging.
Funny because you need a license to be a therapist or MD, and you can be compelled to reveal if confidential info includes evidence of a crime.
What has that got do to with anything?
It means that the standards for integrity in journalism make it a joke of an industry by comparison.
They probably prevent him from knowing whom to sue. Can he sue “John Doe” and then subpoena the information or something?
oh yeah, sue the university *and* John Doe, then subpoena from the university the name of John Doe. But he has no academic protection and will lose the job then.
Now the new law students evaluate the successful lawyers, rather than vice versa. Sick.
The university doesn’t know the accuser’s name. Only the newspaper knows, and the editors will be very willing to go to jail rather than obey the subpoena. The university could probably extract the name from the editors by threatening to expel them if they don’t divulge it, but it won’t do so, and the judge can’t order it to do so. He can order it to divulge the name if it knows it, but he can’t order it to find out if it doesn’t.
A lawsuit against the paper might produce enough consternation to cause them to give the student up. Yes, I know they said it was an allegation, but even an allegation that you didn’t at least try to verify could be held to be defamation – not doing due diligence and insinuation (it was obvious they were making this statement themselves, since they didn’t bother to even try to check it).
I’m not saying it would get a payout in a court of law under the strictest interpretation of law, but it might cause someone (the students there evidently aren’t very good at this law thing) to cave.
No, GWB. They reported it as an allegation, and that makes them 100% absolutely immune to any kind of suit. Because it’s true that such an allegation was made, so they had every right to report it. They had no duty to even attempt to verify the underlying allegation, because that wasn’t the story.
And no, nothing would frighten them into giving up the name, because they would love to go to jail for upholding journalistic ethics. That would make them national heroes and guarantee them employment at the news outlet of their choice.
He could do that, but they would refuse the subpoena claiming “journalistic privilege”. Chances are that either state law allows that or that the judge will decide to allow it; if not, they will go to jail and be national heroes for defying the law that everyone else has to obey, because reporters are “special”.
Oh for a whistleblower inside the student paper.
How about closing the news paper for a year?
Who could do that? Certainly no court could do it, and no court could order the university to do it.
I was seriously initially wondering why students of Brown University were likely to be terrorists.
I hate the new AP style guide.
Me too,, wondering what Brown University had to do with this story ! Thanks for pointing out the error of my ways in misinterpreting “Brown”………
Looks like some students need to bring their Teddy bears to Civil Procedure class. Of course, they do not feel unsafe. It’s just a ruse, especially as they feel free to instigate insecurity among others.
If an unarmed middle-aged CivPro instructor makes them feel unsafe in a class full of students, I don’t know how they manage to navigate the wider world.
Like the one time a Federal Texas judge called for a sleepover in chambers in order for two very fractious attorneys to settle issues with their current case. I really wish I could remember the caselaw, but it downright INFANTILIZED both attorneys for acting like toddlers.
“”I am now very pessimistic. I think there is a very good chance American democracy will fail, that in the next 30 years we will have a catastrophic failure of our democracy.'”
“Why would Jonathan Haidt be so full of doom and gloom? Maybe because of the dozens of cases of Woke malfeasance in the science departments of universities, as described by Lawrence Krauss.”
What does he mean “will fail”? When elections are no longer generally believed to be credible, and with reason, what’s left?
Whether he told them so or not, on the first day or any other, the fact is that when white people first settled North America most of the Indians were savages. That’s not a criticism, it’s simply a fact.
I denounce Milhouse for noticing reality.
There is a first time for everything…even for Justice Mulhouse.
No. Milhouse nearly always writes about legal questions. And as far as I can tell he is nearly always right. At least, his critics say absurd things in attempting to refute him–or they don’t bother to refute him but denounce him for not being sufficiently on board with their cause.
We can ignore the current image of American Indians as pacifistic, proto-Sierra Clubbers, peddled by Hollywood and many anthropology departments.. Check out “War Before Civilization, the Myth of the Peaceful Savage” by Lawrence H. Keeley. As Keeley demonstrates, they lived in the Hobbsian state of nature, which was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” If nearly constant warfare isn’t ‘savage,” then the word is meaningless.
Good points, but “savage” simply means “wild”. Sure, either word can connote cruelty, brutality, or mad violence, but Indigians were called savages simply because they lived in the wild, and not in cities or permanent structures, or the tools and advanced material culture to build them, etc.
It’s interesting that the peaceful, “at one with Nature and the Great Spirit, using every part of the buffalo, we call it maiz” stereotype is really just another way of calling them savages, but in a better light. All Leftists are required to believe in it, but not too hard, lest it become the “Noble Savage” myth, which is of course paternalistic, condescending, and racist.
The romantic myth of the Noble Savage lies at the very heart of leftism. It’s what their entire ideology is built on. So it’s ironic that they now pretend not to believe in it.
One will have to be very careful in hiring a lawyer to somehow check his or her basic competence. I can’t imagine the lefty Bar Association will let bar passage rates drop for these new-style students, but rather the content will be “updated”. Dummies will pass.
“One student felt time commitments required in the class were unreasonable and made success challenging. Required meetings, unannounced extensions of class time, readings and homework added up to a crushing workload.”
Sounds like excellent preparation for what a new lawyer can expect if he signs up for one of the “big firms,” and also for many who do not.
This story kind of makes me understand why God imposed a 40 day flood on the world to wipe the slate clean (so to speak).
I’m thinking we prolly need a 50 or 60 day flood this time around.
Fortunately for us He promised not to do that again. Not to the whole world, anyway.
Most of the criticisms of Milhouse on this blog are because he nearly always focuses on points of law–while his critics focus on what they want the world to be.
Oops: The above reply should have been made elsewhere in this thread.
It works here. THREE CHEERS FOR MILHOUSE!
I actually mean it.
Failure to condemn is my favorite crime.
In this case he has a duty to condemn it, both because he has a duty of loyalty to the victim and because he is responsible for the perpetrator, even if he doesn’t know who it is.
This article noted the snowflakes following complaints”
“One student felt time commitments required in the class were unreasonable and made success challenging. Required meetings, unannounced extensions of class time, readings and homework added up to a crushing workload.”
Welcome to reality where what is called equity does not distinguish between geniuses and those of us incapable of reaching the level of a genius and those of us who can’t work at all due to various disabilities
As an academic my question is a simple one: why has the student in question not been disciplined? After all, the student asserted something that has now been demonstrated conclusively (by video, no less) to be a lie. Not a mistake, not a difference of opinion, but a lie.
This person is a LAW STUDENT: at some point he/she will be making statements under oath to the bar association, to the courts, and to other civil authorities? How can anyone believe him/her now?
There must be discipline for this student.
Because the student is anonymous and, if he even exists, is known only to the paper.
I wonder if that would be a way “around” the “journalism secret sources” thing?
“No, we’re not going to prosecute the student, and we won’t allow the teacher to sue him for defamation. But we are going to kick him out for showing character unbecoming of a future lawyer*.”
(* Don’t laugh.)
No, it’s not a way around it. The newspaper will not out the accuser to the administration, for the same reason that it won’t out him to anyone else. That is what passes for “journalistic ethics”, and reporters take it as an article of faith that they must be willing to go to jail to protect their sources’ identities.
And people wonder why ex-lawyers and failed to pass the bar law students are working at Starbucks and waiting tables.
The course load was too heavy. Cry me a river.
Law school classes are supposed to be mentally challenging. Real-world law practice requires extensive preparation and mental challenges.
I never went to law school, but I’m definitely mentally challenged
Ugh…my son graduated from this law school…I’m so embarassed.
And he loved Civil Procedure his freshman year..he has no complaints.
“Ugh”? Are you mocking the Native Indigians? That’s as bad as giving them smallpox blankets, or tossing litter at their canoe!
Dean Anthony Varona now holds an active and time-sensitive duty to condemn false accusations. Something like: “I condemn the unsubstantiated accusations against the professor as they are defamatory. The time, place and manner of the allegations were not established. They were debunked. Our review of the complete recorded classes show zero evidence of the allegations and thus exonerated the professor. The allegations did not say the alleged and now debunked comments were made outside the classroom.”
If Dean Verona will not swiftly condemn the defamation, he should resign and all impacted people (professors, students, alumni, employees, taxpayers who help fund the law school, etc) should feel free to file complaints against Dean Verona’s law license, based on his reported failure to protect the truth and thus essentially his oath.
So there is real evidence that Professor Burk did not say what was alleged, and the student(s) involved were likely whining about the course work load?
UGH….if they find the student(s), expel…
Dean Varona is just starting out as Dean, a year into the job. It would make a lot of sense for his boss University President Eduardo Peñalver to back him up and perhaps to issue a joint statement supporting Prof. Burk. But then again, Eduardo Peñalver’s record on defending faculty is clear from his service as the Dean of the Cornell Law School during the attempt to get Prof. Jacobson fired.
If you stop braying, celebrating, parading, eventually people will forget, take a knee, and go along to get along. The converse is also true, and a good source of leverage in a democratic/dictatorial culture.
It sounds like the editors of the school paper have learned their lesson of printing innuendo and lies well and will have very bright futures in the MSM someday.
Every incoming law student should be required to Read Scott Turow’s “One-L”, rather than Coates and Kendi. That would end any complaints that professors are too tough on their first year students. I read that book in high school, and it scared me off even pondering a law career throughout my undergraduate years.
Yep, they read Kendi..
It’s past time that anonymous accusations made without presenting evidence are dismissed. It’s one thing if there was video evidence and the student submitted that evidence anonymously. That would be somewhat reasonable. No evidence? No accuser to question? Not acceptable b/c the result is a disruptive ordeal for everyone involved with zero chance of finding the truth. These witch hunts must end.
This insanity makes me think that all public employees, like police officers, should be required to use Body Cams – the cost should be offset by penalties extracted from those who lied about their allegations – and yes, that would include reductions from Government benefit income.
Just a thought on the whining about the extreme workload – if a student that is fit for law school takes ten hours to prepare and review a lecture and the whining student admits it takes him or her or whatever at least 12 hours for this simple task — that right there seems to allow some conclusions of the mental acuity of said student…
Sigh, edit button sorely missed.
“… conclusions as to the…”
Try telling a law firm that you are limited in hours as to how much you must prepare for a particular case or assigned task. See how long you remain employed.
Willingness to do the work overrides greater ability to do the work so long as the willing posses the minimum ability. It doesn’t matter how gifted a person is if they lack the willingness to prepare for and perform the functions of the task.
If I ever need one, I’ll try to forget in selection that fifty percent of lawyers are average or below. At least in selecting doctors for my eight surgeries and for continuing care my research has been fruitful.