The Morrison Memo

2020 Magazine Dean Trevor Morrison photograph
Dean Trevor Morrison

When I came to NYU Law seven years ago, the world did not look the same as it does today. On the summer day I write these words, it is against a backdrop I scarcely could have imagined then. Today, our work is both more difficult and more urgent. It is clearer than ever that the rule of law is what we make it, that our democracy is fragile and access to its institutions inequitable, and that systemic problems will persist without intentional transformation.

Critical Engagement

NYU Law has long been a leader in issues of racial justice, and we’ve deliberately renewed our commitment in recent years. We are proud that the Black Allied Law Students Association started here more than 50 years ago, that our Law Alumni of Color Association has been active and engaged for more than 40 years, and that we claim excellent and influential scholars in critical spaces.

Our Strategic Plan, launched in October 2016, set diversity and inclusion as one of its pillars, with action in service of that commitment: launching the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law (CRIL) and the Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (CDIB); concretizing the role of our Inclusion and Diversity Committee (IDC); and bringing Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion Lindsay Kendrick on board, among other changes. We have focused on diversity as a necessary foundation of excellence, whether in our student body, faculty, administrators and staff, alumni associations, or board of trustees.

Helmed by Professors Anthony Thompson and Deborah Archer and Executive Director Vincent Southerland, CRIL engages future generations of social justice advocates, focusing on the criminal legal system, community justice, and technology; challenging current policy and practice through research, litigation, and advocacy; educating and training; and convening important conversations with advocates and communities—including more than 35 for NYU since February 2017. I am proud that, this year, the Law School has been able to initiate an endowment to support the center’s work.

Professor Barry Friedman’s Policing Project focuses on the areas of front-end policing, regulating policing technology, and reimagining public safety. New York Attorney General Letitia James recently appointed Professor Friedman as a special advisor to help assess the NYPD’s interactions with individuals engaged in protests across the city. The Criminal Justice Lab, led by Distinguished Scholar Anne Milgram ’96, works to address the flaws in our criminal justice system by broadening the lens used to evaluate our responses to crime and by leveraging data, analytics, and technology to provide the tools and information decision makers need to create better results. Their current projects include designing and piloting a screening tool to divert individuals suffering from mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness from the traditional criminal justice system, and assisting the City of Indianapolis in the development of an Assessment and Intervention Center.

The CDIB, led by Professor Kenji Yoshino and Executive Director David Glasgow LLM ’14, works to advance interdisciplinary scholarship in its field and shares expertise through targeted engagement with external organizations. CDIB welcomes all students to our community with orientation programming focused on diversity and inclusion, offers a yearlong simulation course, and hosts a 1L reading group. Through its student fellows program, CDIB offers opportunities to work on diversity and inclusion research projects relating to issues inside or outside the Law School.

Supporting and Preparing Students

As we prepare students for practice, we provide robust experiential opportunities so they can take action now and hone the tools they will need to be effective advocates and leaders.

As one example, many of our clinics focus on training students to be able to create positive change on issues of civil rights and racial justice. The Civil Rights Clinic engages a wide range of civil rights and social justice matters through direct client representation, appellate advocacy, and advocacy campaigns. The Civil Rights Clinic: Challenging Mass Incarceration works with the ACLU to tackle mass incarceration and address contributing factors. In the Racial Justice Clinic, students work on landmark civil rights litigation with the ACLU and projects addressing a broad range of racial justice issues. The Racial Equity Strategies Clinic focuses on strategies employed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund to achieve racial equity and justice. And during the Equal Justice and Defender Externship, students work at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, a nonprofit organization founded by Professor Bryan Stevenson to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, challenge racial and economic injustice, and protect basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.

We have a long tradition of supporting our students as they pursue their legal education; NYU Law attracts faculty and administrators who are the best at what they do and are dedicated to student success. The ripple effects of COVID-19 have been disparate and fast-moving, and in recent months we’ve advocated for and supported our students on a broad range of key issues, including bar eligibility, international student visas and employment opportunities, and emergency financial support.

We have significantly increased our scholarship awards in recent years as part of our Lead the Way campaign, but we also know that every student is contending with challenges related to the current crisis. Therefore, we are taking additional steps now to reduce the economic strain on our students. We established a COVID-19 Hardship Fund in the spring to assist students facing new economic difficulties during the pandemic. We will continue to award grants from this fund during the fall, including to students who already received such support in the spring. In addition, this fall the Law School will provide every JD, LLM, and MSL student with a Technology Support Grant of $1,000, to help ensure access to the technological resources needed to learn in the current environment. And every student already receiving a partial tuition scholarship from the Law School will have their award increased by $1,000.

We have made all these commitments to our students even in the face of a very challenging budgetary picture as a result of the pandemic. So much of what we have been able to accomplish is due to the wonderful generosity of our alumni and friends. The spirit with which you have given back, especially in recent months, is truly inspiring.

Building on Foundations

If this moment of national emergency tells us anything, it is that we should strive to do more. In a variety of settings over the past year, students and recent alumni have shared that generations of students of color have articulated the same concerns about equality and racial justice that have risen to national prominence in recent months. These concerns pose hard questions for the law, the legal profession, and our own institution. They are not new. The question now is whether we will address them more meaningfully than we have in the past. We must do so.

I’m grateful for the leadership of Lindsay Kendrick, Professor Erin Murphy and the IDC, and the faculty, centers, and projects that are meeting this moment head-on. We are adding to our courses and programming on race and anti-racism, and we are looking at our broader curriculum with a different lens, including to inform the way we think about the relationship among law, race, and inequality. We are also recommitting to the pursuit of meaningful diversity on our faculty and in our student body, building on progress already made.

If we are to sustain this movement, we will need to institutionalize our efforts so we can create and build structures for the long term. Doing so will require the hard work, resilience, and partnership of our entire community. Our ambitions for the future of NYU Law are no less bold today than they have ever been. And our work has never been more consequential. Together, we are addressing society’s most intractable problems, including the meaningful transformation of our own profession and institutions.

If we adhere to the values we claim, we will continue to lead the way in legal education and through meaningful engagement with the broader world. I thank all of you for your partnership as we chart the way forward.

Posted September 11, 2020