Advancing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the College of Law: A Work in Progress 

Operationalizing Inclusion

In 2021, Dean Boise appointed Professor Suzette Meléndez as Syracuse Law’s first Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion. With the growing national attention directed to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), creating such a position provides direct leadership for the effort to sustain inclusivity within the College of Law. In assuming this role, Professor Melendez will be able to draw on her experience as a member of Syracuse University Chancellor’s Workgroup on Diversity and Inclusion.

Suzette Melendez
Suzette Melendez

Working with the College’s Inclusion Council, Meléndez has been reviewing the College’s policies and procedures in all aspects of our operations, including in partnership with Syracuse University’s Human Resources Department. Their work has also generated extensive feedback on Syracuse University’s Plan for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Accessibility, and on the development of data dashboards to track our institutional progress.

Student leaders have been an important part of this process, both as members of the Inclusion Council and as leaders of student organizations. Among other things, students are involved in the implementation of Transformative Dialogue Groups among students as we begin the 2022-2023 academic year.

Orange Advance

Diversifying the legal profession requires innovative efforts to support the success of aspiring lawyers of color as they apply to, prepare for, and matriculate in law school. In 2019, Dean Boise announced a diversity pipeline program, which we now call Orange Advance, in partnership with three HBCUs in the Atlanta University Center (AUC): Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College. We are grateful to be supported financially in this effort by AccessLex.

With the easing of the pandemic, the College of Law for the first time welcomed a cohort of 21 students to Dineen Hall in May for a week-long pre-law residency. Representing all three AUC schools, the students traveled to Syracuse to explore the breadth of career opportunities in the legal profession; participate with faculty and practitioners in classroom lectures and panel discussions on the study of law and the American legal system; and begin to familiarize themselves with law school admissions processes and eligibility requirements, including strategies to prepare for the LSAT. During their time here, the students also discovered Syracuse and our broader Syracuse University campus.

“I never had a formal introduction to law school,” says Eric Jones, a rising senior from Morehouse College. “I’ve talked about law school with a few lawyers but haven’t had any exposure to it otherwise. When I came across this opportunity, I thought—why not? The special incentive here was that there was no financial burden for me as a student. I could come and participate for no extra charge.”

The working goal is to tap into the formidable talent pool of our partner schools’ students and give them the early understanding of the legal profession that is frequently missing for first-generation law students. It is likely that some of the students who participate in Orange Advance will matriculate at other law schools, but we view this as our contribution to increasing the diversity of all law schools, and ultimately the diversity of the profession. To this end, Dean Boise shared details of the program with fellow law deans across the country to inspire similar efforts elsewhere and expand participation in pursuing this shared goal.

An Educational Journey

A good deal of the work of inclusion is to set expectations among faculty and staff and ensure that appropriate training opportunities are in place. This year, workshops for faculty and staff included insights on being equity-minded, avoiding micro-aggressions, navigating difficult conversations, moving from cultural competency to cultural proficiency, and building awareness and confidence in using pronouns and preferred names.

For law students, last year, the curriculum was expanded to include DEI primers, and College of Law faculty reviewed and adjusted the 1L curriculum to ensure that foundational courses of study intentionally address DEI implications. Effective this fall, and in alignment with Syracuse University’s similar requirement for undergraduate students, all College of Law students must choose at least one course from a list of options created by the faculty that addresses themes and materials on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The aim of this cultural competency requirement is to help students in their second or third year of law school develop an awareness of the ways identity, difference, culture, and explicit or implicit bias can condition and constrain the pursuit of equal justice under law. “Law students must be prepared to practice in a diverse society so that they can become the best legal professionals possible in whatever legal capacities they serve in diverse local, national, and global communities,” explains Meléndez. “By incorporating the cultural competency curriculum into their course of study, law students will be prepared to meet the legal needs of clients whose backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives may differ from their own.” This new requirement will help to reinforce the core principle that legal professionals have the obligation to ensure that the rule of law applies equally to all persons.

A Work in Progress

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are not new concepts. But they are concepts that have yet to be fully realized. Much work remains to be done and we are early in the journey. Consistent with our mission, our focus is on education: learning ourselves so that we can better educate and prepare our students.