Rutgers Law School has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to advocating for social justice, whether it’s through pro bono work, clinics, its Minority Student Program, or student activism. So when the American Bar Association (ABA) updated its law school accreditation standards in 2022 to include a mandate that schools demonstrate a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) by “concrete actions,” Rutgers Law was more than prepared—partly because of its rich history, but also because of thoughtful steps taken in recent years to advance its commitment to antiracism and social justice.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the Rutgers Law faculty passed a resolution, recommitting to anti-racist principles and actions. Part of this commitment included a review of the curriculum to ensure that it provided ample opportunity for students to learn about issues of race, law, and inequality. Out of this review emerged two important changes to the student experience at Rutgers Law.
First, the faculty voted to require all students to take at least one upper-level course that substantially relates to structural inequality, discrimination, cultural context, or cultural competency prior to their date of graduation. By establishing this requirement, the faculty committed to offering more new courses that address racial and other forms of systemic inequality and to find ways to integrate these issues into existing courses. “Our goal with this new requirement is to provide a broader range of classes that allow our students to develop deeper understandings of how the law has been used as a tool of oppression as well as a tool of justice,” says Kimberly Mutcherson, Co-Dean of Rutgers Law. “If we don’t talk about the ways in which the law and lawyers have failed us in the past, we can’t build a more equitable future.”
Secondly, Rutgers Law launched a new pilot course, Law & Inequality, that it offered as an elective course to first-year students. Each section of the course is taught by a different faculty member who puts their own spin on the theme of law and inequality. Topics range from reproductive justice to immigration law, family law, and beyond. Interim Co-Dean Rose Cuison-Villazor, who has co-taught a Law & Inequality course with several immigration law professors, said,“The course highlighted ways in which government discrimination on the basis of race, gender, class, and disability, among other identity markers shaped immigration law and explored legal and advocacy strategies for addressing these issues when representing clients.”
In addition to new courses and student requirements, Rutgers Law is providing increased support for professors seeking to incorporate these critical issue of inequality into the existing curriculum. “We don’t want these issues to only be raised by certain professors or in certain classes because we know there are places in every area of the law where racial and other forms of inequality can be unearthed,” Mutcherson says. To that end, Rutgers Law provided faculty-wide training on how to recognize and counter bias in the classroom, and clinical faculty created their own opportunity for additional training on anti-racism in the clinical setting. Administrators and staff also participated in a series of implicit bias workshops. “We also started a shared read for 1L students as part of orientation, and have used that as an opportunity to introduce students to these issues from the first moment they begin their law school journey with us,” Mutcherson adds. Incoming students have read Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and this year’s selection was White Space, Black Hood by Georgetown Law Professor Sheryll Cashin. At orientation, students meet in small groups with faculty members and administrators to discuss the themes in the book.
The bottom line? Social issues rise and fall in the public consciousness. ABA standards fluctuate. But a commitment to social justice work and study will always be a foundational focus at Rutgers Law. “We educate students from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, including a significant number of students who are the first in their families to attend college or law school,” says Cuison-Villazor. “Many of our students yearn for a classroom experience where they aren't just taught what the law is, but how it came to be that way and, even more importantly, how we can make it better. That work will always be a priority for us.”