Pale, Male, Yale: Diversifying the Walls of Columbia Law School

According to CLS’s communications reports online, CLS started admitting women in 1927 and African Americans as early as 1896. Today, 45 percent of the student body is women and approximately 33 percent is of American Indian, Asian, African-American, or Hispanic background.

Nonetheless, of the numerous portraits lining the halls of Columbia Law School, only two are of women and one is of a person of color. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Dean Barbara Black, and Justice Thurgood Marshall stand out among legions of white, male faculty and alumni who decorate the hallways. The walls reflect the historical makeup of the school – predominantly white and male. And not surprisingly, this history is not unique to CLS – Yale Law School started admitting women in 1918, and Harvard Law School did not admit women until 1950.

So where do CLS and other elite law schools stand today?

When Dean of Students Michelle Greenberg-Kobrin visited Harvard Law School, she found a photography exhibit that featured faculty from diverse backgrounds. Inspired by HLS’s attempt to decorate their walls with more than just traditional oil paintings, she approached Elizabeth Schmalz, Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs.

As a way to communicate to students the accomplishments of alumni from diverse backgrounds and their pursuits of diverse career paths, Dean Greenberg-Kobrin and Ms. Schmalz started a photo portrait series of notable alumni. In consultation with Dean for Social Justice Initiatives Ellen Chapnick, they pulled photos from hundreds of articles that had been published in the Columbia Law School Magazine. The portrait series features alumni including Della Britton Baeaza, CLS ’78, head of the Jackie Robinson foundation; Maria Foscarinis, CLS ’81, executive director of the National Law Center for Homelessness & Poverty; and Tutu Alicante, CLS ’05, who founded the first human rights advocacy initiative devoted to Equatorial Guinea.

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The photo portraits are currently displayed on the monitors in the Jerome Greene lobby and are hung on a rotating basis by the first floor elevator bank, but it is a work in progress. Dean Greenberg-Kobrin says she would love to see them framed and hung on the wood panels on the first floor, but thinks that the digital age is begging for a more dynamic display. Ms. Schmaltz suggested a more comprehensive installation in the lobby that would give the portraits a greater institutional presence while taking advantage of innovative technology.

According to Dean Greenberg-Kobrin, the goal of the photo series is to hold up a more realistic view of the diversity of Columbia Law alumni, not only in terms color and sex, but also in career path and post-graduate experience. “I think it’s important to make sure that our walls are reflective of the diversity of legal education and of our graduates,” she said.

While Ms. Schmaltz hopes that the portraits communicate the value she believes Columbia Law places on integrity, service, innovation, and the creative thinker, she does not know if students are receiving the message.

While none of the students interviewed for this article were aware of the new portrait initiative, they all supported the effort to increase the visibility of successful alumni from diverse backgrounds and pursuing diverse career paths. Latino/a Law Students Association (LaLSA) President Mayra Joachin believes that it is important for LaLSA members, who are not typically white males, to see people in the profession they can aspire to.

“Feeling that sense of community and support from the school increases the chances that they will succeed at the school,” Joachin explained.  “These photos show that the school is interested in highlighting these individuals and shows that’s they’re important to the law school.”

In response to the painted portraits on the walls, students agreed that the current lack of diversity in the portraits had a variety of harmful consequences.

“The unintended side effect of having portraits of white men tends to reaffirm the fact that women and minorities are outsiders in the game of law and law schools,” said Jarrell Mitchell, a 3L and former Vice President of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA).

Jeff Skinner, a 2L and the current BLSA president, agreed that, “[t]he current portraits reaffirm the notion that the school and the legal profession is only made up of white men and ignores the contributions of women and people of color.”

Students also expressed their concerns that the painted portraits perpetuated a lack of student exposure to alumni in diverse legal fields.

“This is a small thing but a big thing, and ultimately does a disservice to the school because we have graduates, such as Paul Robeson, who have radically redefined the legal world,” said 3L Jarrell Mitchell.

Though there is no set process to install oil paintings in JG, the cost of a formal portrait ranges from $30,000 – $50,000. Currently, the administration has no plans to add to the oil paintings in the upper levels of Jerome Greene. However, Professor Michael Graetz has indepdently approached the estate of Constance Baker Motley, a Columbia Law alumna who was the first black woman to become Manhattan borough president, New York state senator, and a federal judge, to have her portrait commissioned with money raised from faculty and BLSA.

While students appreciate the new photo portrait series, the initiative also highlights the underlying challenge of increasing diversity in legal education.

“The new photo portraits are nice, potentially helpful, and the effort is appreciated, [but] having actual diverse members of the community is more important,” said Andrew Sangster, President of Native American Law Students Association (NALSA).

Look forward to an update on the portrait of Constance Baker Motley in our next issue.

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