February 13-19, 2003
Students say a sexist atmosphere permeates Temple Law.
A group of male students emerged from a first-year class. In discussing the mood of the female professor, they talked about ways to make the classroom environment less rigorous. The solution they arrived at? "She needs to have a really powerful orgasm maybe two. "
A group of students were talking about two of their professors -- one a white male and the other a woman of color. Both professors would sometimes respond to students' comments by saying that they did not know the answer to an issue the student raised. The male students thought the white professor did this as a "teaching strategy." But they thought the woman of color didn't know what she was talking about.
A first-year student was sitting alone on one of the couches in the law school when a male student from her first-year section approached her. When she looked up, she was eye-level with his fully visible, yet clothed, erection. Not knowing who to turn to and worried that she would be labeled a whiner, she said nothing. Only later did she learn that he was notorious for having done similar things to other women.
On Feb. 5, a group of students at Temple University's Beasley School of Law presented these stories, along with a dozen others, to the school's faculty during its regular monthly meeting. The students, who call themselves the Concerned Owls, said the presentation was intended to draw attention to their unease about a climate of discrimination and hostility on campus. The meeting, held in the airy Shusterman Hall on a cold, sunny day, was well-attended and the assembled professors, administrators and faculty members listened attentively for the 50 minutes allocated to the students. Reading from a prepared script, one by one, the Concerned Owls (comprising nine women and three men, including four people of color) recounted the offending incidents, culled from themselves and fellow students.
"We are here today as a group of concerned students who no longer are willing to tolerate the ambivalent nature of the law school's response to behavior and incidents that would, in a workplace or school environment, quickly be called out as unacceptable," began Dafina Cooper, a third-year student who spoke in a calm and confident voice.
"We are a group of students with different identities, backgrounds and experiences," she continued. "We are people of color and white people. We are men and women. We are gay, straight and bisexual. We are different religions and ethnicities. We do not represent the student body. We represent ourselves. We also represent those among us who us told their stories off the record, unwilling to speak publicly for fear of retribution by the administration or further alienation. We believe these problems are indicative of a larger systemic problem. Systemic meaning that there are underlying causes that have made this law school fertile ground for such incidents to occur."
Since last semester, a number of students on Temple law school's North Philly campus have openly expressed concerns about an atmosphere they describe as "negative." But it wasn't until this semester that some of those who have been adversely affected found each other and were able to present their problems collectively, under a single banner.
Last November, another storm began swirling on the 1,100-student campus, which has roughly equal numbers of men and women. William Ciancaglini, president of the Student Bar Association (SBA), introduced the Men's Law Caucus (MLC). According to Ciancaglini, a professor (who he won't name) apparently misunderstood the group's credo.
"A teacher, who is openly homosexual, came to our first meeting and said the organization was a gay-bashing group -- at the top of his lungs," Ciancaglini explains. "I have no idea what prompted this. But one student said they were going to do traditional male things, like eat chicken wings and watch Monday Night Football [MLC is a social group]. The homosexual teacher then suggested that it was intended to be a real man's' group."
Also that month, the law school student paper, Class Action, ran a poem perceived by many to be an attack on women. "A Lesson in Romance" included the following: "O woman with all your grace!/ Between your ears a land of waste,/ O please imprison me inside your skull,/ As I recall it's just empty space."
Ciancaglini writes for the paper, but says he was not involved in the writing or publication of the poem. Still, he says, Professor Marina Angel, known for her women's rights activism, demanded a meeting with him to discuss the poem and the MLC.
"I had an hourlong meeting with her in her office," Ciancaglini says. "We spoke nicely and I explained to her that we're not looking for real men.' I told her that the only person who had said that was the teacher who was a homosexual. I told her that the Men's Law Caucus does not denigrate women [there are 12 female members]. And, to me, the poem in the school newspaper was cryptic. But Angel made it a major issue."
Ciancaglini says that during their meeting, Angel appeared to understand that the MLC incident might not have been as egregious as it had first appeared. But a few days later, Angel issued what Ciancaglini described as an inflammatory memo -- which alluded to their conversation, but did not represent what Ciancaglini says transpired -- to the entire law school faculty: "An atmosphere has developed at our law school where some male students feel privileged to publicly trash and denigrate women in and out of class, in the official student newspaper and at student organization meetings."
A few days later, using the campus listserv in his capacity as SBA president, Ciancaglini responded angrily to Angel's memo, violating a campus rule that prohibits personal use of the electronic mail system. He challenged Angel's assertions and accused her of lying.
Temple Law School Dean Robert Reinstein responded by revoking Ciancaglini's listserv privileges, citing an abuse of power. A number of students and faculty were also offended by Ciancaglini's response; the SBA president now faces possible impeachment.
"It seems the overwhelming majority of the student body disagrees with [Ciancaglini's] view of the world and are not happy with his actions, which have caused a lot of pain and turmoil and have exacerbated an unhealthy climate at the law school," Angel says.
During the Feb. 5 meeting, the students offered a list of suggestions to facilitate change and encourage a healthier campus environment. Angel, one of the 46 who attended the faculty meeting, says that she believes the group's presentation made an impact.
"At that meeting, the students gave a stinging indictment of the administration," she says. "I'm very, very proud of them."
Reinstein says that the administration was already aware of many of these concerns. During a January faculty meeting, he says, a resolution was passed to address them. He also says the administration is committed to tackling the issues of the Concerned Owls. But, regarding the details of the Feb. 5 presentation, he says the administration feels obliged to launch a full investigation before reaching any final conclusions.
"I took an extraordinary step to invite the students [to speak at the faculty meeting]," says Reinstein, who has held his position for 14 years. "It was the first time I'd ever invited a student group to speak to the faculty and I did this because we were concerned about the issues being raised and we wanted to hear from them firsthand."
As last week's student presentation ended, the students entertained surprisingly few questions from the audience. But, standing on the steps outside Shusterman Hall, they all agreed they were happy for the opportunity.
On Sunday, Reinstein and three members of his administration issued a memo to the entire law school describing the Feb. 5 meeting. They restated the school's commitment to inclusion, its pursuit of ethical standards and determination to enforce the school's disciplinary code. They also encouraged other students to come forward with their concerns.
"But this is not a crisis," Reinstein insists. "We're handling it the way a law school should handle it: to listen to our students and to listen to the concerns that they have. We're trying to determine the extent to which this is a problem."