On February 28, the SLS held a Racialized Students’ Town Hall, open to all students and facilitated by SLS Equity Officers Peter Pai and Shari Nathan. Its aim was “creating a forum for racialized students to share their thoughts and concerns about their experiences of the law school.” The event was well attended and created discussion on a variety of issues affecting racialized students.
One problem flagged by a number of students was the tendency for professors to mangle, or belabour the pronouncing of, “foreign” names—“despite happily speaking Latin.” Students pointed out that the concern was not so much the improper pronunciation but rather “the need to editorialize.” A solution that was suggested was having students provide the phonetic pronunciation of their names for addition to their professor’s class list ahead of time.
A broader issue that participants brought up was that “people just don’t recognize race to be an issue” at the school, or in the profession generally. One student suggested that the school thinks about diversity more broadly—“diversity of backgrounds”—and so thinks it is doing well and looks good on metrics. But, looking beyond the Admissions Handbook numbers, the student pointed out that there are three black students in 2L.
Many students were concerned with the diversity training provided by the school. This year, the training for 1Ls only occurred midway through the year and was described as “lacklustre” and “half-baked”; meanwhile, upper years do not participate in any diversity training. One student commented that “the problem with diversity training at the law school is that it is diversity training for white people—‘Don’t say this racist thing because it will impact you negatively.’” A suggested action item was to spend more on the session and secure someone who will provide the training properly. Students also wanted better signalling from the Faculty, pointing out that even if an engaging speaker is brought in, nothing will change if the Faculty doesn’t signal that it should be taken seriously.
Some students took issue with a perceived SLS agenda to over-emphasize racial issues at the law school. For instance, an anonymous online submission stated: “I’ve always found U of T Law to be a very pluralist and tolerant environment where we go above and beyond to make everyone feel welcome, including through accommodations. This just isn’t Mississippi. Ms. Bittman and Ms. Longo are tilting at windmills in their pursuit of a cause that fits their ideological worldview rather than focusing on core issues like tuition.” A student at the town hall pointed out that the response of most students in the room to that comment—laughter—created an atmosphere that did not welcome dissent on these issues.
Another major concern students brought up was with the recruitment and OCI process. Students mentioned racial comments made by recruiters in passing during interviews; one was told by an employer that it was “nice” that she didn’t speak with an accent. When the student went to the CDO with regards to that specific incident, the response she was given was that now she understood that her values did not match that firm’s values. As one student put it, “If you go and talk to the CDO about any of this, they just shrug.” In this particular area, students wanted U of T to recognize that it wields “an extraordinary amount of power” as a feeder school to these firms; it has the sort of sway that would allow it to confront firms directly about this sort of behaviour.
One student commented that encouraging students to self-select out of applying to certain firms because of this behaviour is not conducive to change. Others pointed out that even top Bay Street firms are now trying to foster real conversations around diversity in the legal profession and at their firms, but the CDO still equivocates when asked whether students should bring these issues up in the interview process. Overall, while students recognized that this is a systemic issue that goes far beyond the law school, they wanted the CDO to take on a more active role in trying to address these problems.