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Law school accused of violating accreditation to hire 'anti-racist' crusader as dean

Northwestern Law School administrators introduced themselves as "racist" in an online diversity training last fall.

Published: May 12, 2021 6:53pm

Updated: May 14, 2021 2:01pm

Northwestern University's law school is staying silent amid accusations that it violated American Bar Association accreditation rules to hire a dean known for her anti-racism activism before faculty could object.

Interim Dean James Speta informed faculty on Friday that they would be voting Monday on whether to grant tenure to the law school's pick for dean, Hari Osofsky, who currently leads Pennsylvania State University's law school.

It was the first time faculty learned the identity of any finalist, much less the candidates for the position, according to an anonymous email received by University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, who posted it on his Instapundit blog. 

"The substance of this email matches" what he's heard from a Northwestern faculty member, Reynolds said.

Northwestern announced Osofsky's deanship after the vote Monday, highlighting her efforts at Penn State Law and its related international school "to encourage more women and people of color to consider law school and university leadership."

She created diversity scholarships, a new concentration in "Race, Law and Equity" and a new position for associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Osofsky also promoted an anti-racism statement to the law and international school communities in the aftermath of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis, encouraging "students, faculty, staff, and alumni" across the two schools to sign the "living letter," which, she explained, was to be published on the "Penn State Law and School of International Affairs websites and social media."

Northwestern showed its fidelity to the tenets of anti-racism last fall when Speta and other administrators introduced themselves as "racists" in an online diversity training. Half the members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights responded by requesting a federal investigation.

On his own blog, University of Chicago law professor Brian Leiter criticized Osofsky's promotion of the anti-racism letter as "a serious violation of academic freedom" that used her position to coerce agreement with "the correct interpretation of public events."

Northwestern Law has not responded to several requests from Just the News to respond to the accusations about the search process and Monday's vote, which was allegedly not conducted by secret ballot. 

According to Reynolds' tipster, Northwestern faculty previously voted unanimously to require a secret ballot for all "appointments-related votes" starting this fall as a rebuke to Northwestern's secretive search process.

Reynolds told Just the News he passed along interview requests to his original tipster and another faculty member who claimed Monday's vote was characterized by "palpable" pressure and fear. Neither has responded.

"Everyone there seems awfully scared," Reynolds said. 

The American Bar Association declined to answer whether the allegations, if proven, would constitute an accreditation violation. 

It does not disclose inquiries regarding possible violations or investigations before publicly announcing "sanctions, specific remedial action, probation, withdrawal of approval" or "significant noncompliance" with its rules.

'Grave breach to threaten the faculty' about tenure votes

Speta praised Osofsky as "an accomplished scholar in several fields" and experienced administrator in Friday's email to tenure-track faculty, which was reprinted by Reynolds.

The interim dean attached her curriculum vitae and webpage and said search committee members would "speak to her background and qualifications" during Monday's pre-vote discussion. Speta asked faculty to keep the choice of Osofsky a secret, even inside the law school, before her tenure was approved.

"This Saturday Night Special scheme ... is clearly meant to thwart the faculty's ability to gather information and coordinate," Reynolds' tipster wrote. Osofsky is a "critical-studies woke Dean" from a law school nearly 50 places below Northwestern in U.S. News rankings.

Formed nearly seven months ago, the search committee worked under "exceptional procedures" that allegedly violate ABA Standard 203. It requires universities and law schools to follow an appointment procedure "that assures meaningful involvement by the faculty or a representative body of the faculty in the selection of a dean." 

The procedures violated Northwestern Law rules as well, the tipster claimed, noting the winning finalist didn't meet with faculty, give a "job talk" or provide outside recommendation letters, and the administration didn't commission review of her work by a "committee of experts" from her field.

The alleged process at Northwestern Law is "quite thoroughly unusual," wrote Reynolds, a member of the University of Tennessee law faculty for more than 30 years. "The tenure vote is always up to the faculty, and it is a grave breach to threaten the faculty about it."

He would withdraw from consideration if a law school had behaved this way in recruiting him, "as I would expect them to taint my deanship," he said.

'Alarmist, and not entirely accurate'

Leiter, the University of Chicago law professor, said he received a similar anonymous letter and had conversations with Northwestern Law faculty. He didn't respond to a request from Just the News to be connected to those faculty.

The tipster's claims are "alarmist, and not entirely accurate," he wrote, arguing that Osofsky is not a critical studies scholar, though another finalist is, and she was previously tenured at the University of Minnesota Law School, which ranks much higher than Penn State. 

The University of Iowa named her as its first finalist for president a month ago, and she has already spoken on that campus.

It's unusual "but also not unheard of" for finalists to not meet with faculty, outside candidates don't typically do a "job talk," and the search committee included several faculty, he added.

Regarding the tipster's claim that Provost Kathleen Hagerty "dared the faculty" to publicize its violation of ABA Standard 203, Leiter said he was told a member of the search committee warned that Hagerty "might put the law school into receivership" if Osofsky wasn't approved.

Faculty approved Osofsky on Monday without following procedural rules, which require "a five-day notice for all meetings," a faculty member told Reynolds. 

Speta allegedly told them the vote "will constitute a waiver of the notice requirement," according to Reynolds.

"No written reports were ever produced to the faculty," he said. "Surreal."

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