Should Law Students Get to Postpone Their Exams Because of the Garner and Brown Decisions?

The recent ruckus over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner has led to some tough conversations about race at Columbia Law School.

by Arielle Pardes
Dec 10 2014, 8:13pm

Photo by Sasha Maslov

Columbia Law School ignited controversy this week by announcing that it would allow its students to postpone their exams if they felt traumatized by the grand jury decisions regarding  ​Michael Brown and ​Eric Garner. Similar policies have been announced at ​Harvard and Georgetown law schools.

An email from Interim Law School Dean Robert Scott described it like so:

The grand juries' determinations to return non-indictments in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases have shaken the faith of some in the integrity of the grand jury system and in the law more generally. For some law students, particularly, though not only, students of color, this chain of events is all the more profound as it threatens to undermine a sense that the law is a fundamental pillar of society designed to protect fairness, due process, and equality.

A lot of people are saying that this is pretty fucking stupid: Lawyers need to possess " fortitude in the face of injustice"; students need to ​channel their frustration into their exams rather than avoid them; students will all claim their "​feelings have been hurt" just to get their exams rescheduled. ​Naomi Schaeffer Riley, in ​an op-ed for the New York Post, accused the law school of "coddling" its students: "No indictment? Sorry, I need to spend the day trembling with rage and sorrow in my office. Can't take any calls today. I'm meeting with my shrink."

December is a strenuous time for law students: They've spent untold hours in the library hunched over legal texts, preparing for the exams that will make or break their future as lawyers. In many classes, the exam counts for 100 percent of their grade—so the stakes are high. But this year wasn't your average study season. Protests erupted around the country in response to the grand jury non-indictments, and Columbia in particular was embroiled in a fairly heated conversation about race and law.

"After the Ferguson non-indictment, Columbia Law School hosted a forum to discuss the legal procedure behind the grand jury decision and many students criticized the fact that the panelists were three white professors," explained  Alice Wang, a first-year student at the law school. "Black professors—including renowned critical race theory scholar Kimberle Crenshaw—sat in the audience and had to raise their hands to speak." 

At that forum, Wang says she was "floored by one student's comment that while he's all for working within the system to engender gradual change, he has been a victim of police brutality and is concerned about the people who are literally scared to go out on the streets and cannot wait."

Columbia law stu​dent tweets about the "Forum on Ferguson"

That forum was followed by  ​a letter from a group that calls itself the Columbia Law Coalition of Concerned Students of Color, which included a list of demands, exam postponements among them. The letter is really worth reading in its entirety, but the heart of it was a call for faculty and administration at Columbia to "recognize our trauma as legitimate and worthy of a response."

The problem, they say, isn't just that they haven't had time to study for their exams. The problem is that there is no support for students of color—within the legal system or within Columbia. The problem is that Columbia's first administrative response to the Garner non-indictment was to  ​call the cops on student protesters who staged a die-in at the tree lighting ceremony on December 4.

"It's funny to me that so much focus has been put on exam postponement, and how unfair it is to other students. Our entire existence in these spaces is unfair," said Arielle Reid, a third-year law student at Columbia and one of the organizers of The Coalition. "The way we are treated on a daily basis by our peers and professors are unfair. Being the only black person in a class about criminal law, where everyone else has the luxury to pretend that the subject has no racial implications, is unfair. The status quo is unfair."

Columbia, like all universities, has a policy in place for  ​rescheduling exams—things like a serious illness, bereavement, religious observances, or the birth of your child are considered reasonable excuses. Other circumstances are considered on a case-by-case basis. The exemption for "trauma" (a word that's caused a lot of controversy) in light of the non-indictments falls into this last category, but like all special circumstances, Columbia requires that students petitioning for an exam postponement provide documents and an explanation about why they need this exam postponed. And it's not without precedent: In 1970, Harvard Law School allowed students to delay their exams if they were ​participating in Vietnam War protests.

Some critics have pointed out that if law schools are making an exemption for this version of "trauma," then they ought to include other versions, too. "I don't want to participate in the victim Olympics," said a second-year student at Georgetown who asked to remain anonymous, "but I know what it feels like to be raped and know there's nothing I can do about it in the eyes of the law and its evidentiary standards. We are all victims of injustice at one point or another. Using our personal victimhood to shirk our responsibilities as students, as lawyers, as whatever we choose to be only shows the oppressor that they've won, in some small way."

But maybe responsibilities aren't really being shirked. According to Jeremy Berman, a first-year at Columbia, "almost no one is actually delaying their exams." A representative from Columbia Law School wouldn't tell me how many students had made requests, but a spokeswoman told the New York Times that only a "​small number" of students had been granted postponements. Wang reasoned that this was because studying for exams is painful, and "who wants to prolong that misery?"

So if the point of the policy wasn't to get everyone's exams pushed back, then the point is that the administration is making a statement of compassion: We hear you. We empathize with you. We support you.

"I was in the [law school] building studying with friends when the protesters walked through yesterday. Many, if not most or all, of the protesters were Columbia students—and I recognized at least two law students," said Berman. "If a protest movement is to have a real effect on the nation, then it has to continue in the weeks following an event, and it has to inconvenience some people, or else it would be too easy to ignore."

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