Professor responds to Black Lives Matter T-shirt complaints

'Arguments premised on consumerism are not likely to influence me' insists academic after students suggest staff should not express personal opinions

July 18, 2016
Sign saying 'Your Opinion Counts'

A few months ago, one or more anonymous students wrote a note to their law professor, complaining that she had been spotted at least once on campus wearing a "Black Lives Matter" T-shirt.

The letter said wearing the shirt was "inappropriate" and "highly offensive". Further, it said "we do not spend three years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars to be subjected to indoctrination or personal opinions of our professors", and urged the professor to avoid "mindless actions" that might distract students at a law school where not everyone is passing the bar.

The professor wrote back, not only defending her T-shirt, but also critiquing the students' understanding of the professor-student relationship.

While the incident took place earlier this year, the students' letter and the professor's response have gone viral as Black Lives Matter protests resumed after the killings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota. Many have been applauding the professor, while some noted a lack of any information on who she was and whether the letters could be verified.

The professor is Patricia Leary, and she's been teaching at Whittier Law School since 1992. Inside Higher Ed was unable to reach her directly but the law school confirmed that the letters were genuine and she was the author. Whittier is known for its diversity: non-white students make up a majority of the law school's student body.

The full exchange of letters can be found here. In her response, Leary analyses the premises of the students – and goes well beyond Black Lives Matter.

Here are some of Leary's comments that are attracting discussion:

On student claims that their tuition requires her to pay attention: She responded that she does care about their opinions but because they are students, not consumers. "The natural and logical extension of your premise is that students on a full scholarship are not entitled to assert their needs and desires to the same extent as other students (or maybe even at all). So, as you can see, arguments premised on consumerism are not likely to influence me. On the contrary, such a premise causes me to believe that you have a diminished view of legal education."

On the student premise that "you are not paying for my opinion": "You are not paying me to pretend I don't have one," she said.

On student criticism that Black Lives Matter is "racist and anti-law enforcement and has been known to incite violence": Leary wrote that the students seem to believe there is "an invisible 'only' in front of the words 'Black Lives Matter'". Leary added: "If I say 'law students matter,' it does not imply that my colleagues, friends and family do not…When people are receiving messages from the culture in which they live that their lives are less important than other lives, it is a cruel distortion of reality to scold them for not being inclusive enough." Leary also added that "Black Lives Matter" is "not a statement about white people. It does not exclude white people. It does not accuse white people, unless you are a specific white person who perpetuates, endorses or ignores violence against black people."

Leary then goes on to offer a critique of the writing style of the memo, saying it was poorly written and undercut the argument of the letter writers.

Still, she closes with a word of thanks to the students, writing: "I believe that every moment in life (and certainly in the life of law school) can be an occasion for teaching and learning. Thank you for creating an opportunity for me to put this deeply held belief into practice."

This is a version of an article that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed

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