Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Law School Dean Offers Grief Counseling to "Hysterical" Students after Trump Wins: Legal Reasoning Suffers

Michael Schwartz, dean of the law school at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock announced in November, 2016 that he would resign the following summer. His accomplishments included a lawyer-student mentoring program, live-client learning sessions, and a low-income clinic in the Arkansas Delta.[1] The trigger for his resignation was a school-wide email he had sent to students just days earlier in which he announced that he was making counseling available to any student who was upset by the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President. Besides effectively normalizing over-reactions and failing to recognize normal venting, the dean’s email interjected partisan politics, albeit tacitly, into higher education. Rather than turn the popularized context into a teachable moment for assumption-analysis, the dean modeled what happens when unsupported assumptions run unchecked. In the end, the legal reasoning of students could suffer.
“For those of you who feel upset,” the dean wrote, “we have arranged extra on-campus counseling services today.”[2] Ironically, the dean who was taken up by the politics of the day instructed his law students (who in America are older as they already have one undergraduate college degree), “No matter how you are feeling, the most important thing for you is to focus on your studies.”[3] The dean’s assumption was that the outcome of the 2016 presidential election was unique in this regard, for another professor at the school, Robert Steinbuch, noted at the time that he could not recall the dean’s office offering grief counseling after Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012. “I knew plenty of people who were disappointed,” Steinbuch observed, “but I didn’t know anybody [who] needed grief counseling. I think when we tell people that they need some form of grief counseling we are normalizing hysteria and suggesting there’s something immoral or wrong about our democratic process.”[4] I suspect that the normalization of the hysteria was aided by the intolerant political-correctness movement (i.e., how dare you accuse me of hysteria!). The dean was unwittingly facilitating the tacit demand for the normalization by normalizing the hysteria himself. Even the venting, which in itself is quite normal, can succumb to the demand that it be treated as something else, as if each of the vented grievances is valid rather than an over-reaction based on overblown assumptions.
The dean could have turned the attention on the election into a teachable moment by conveying to students how valuable critiquing assumptions can be when they are based on heightened emotions. Legal reasoning is presumably better when it is not at the mercy of high-charged emotions. Instead, the dean himself overextended his own assumptions—namely, that minorities would be attacked and not valued simply because Donald Trump won the election. “Our diversity is a strength and a goal that we need to cultivate in every way we can,” he wrote as if that needed all of a sudden to be said.[5] “Everyone deserves a safe, supportive, collegial learning environment,” he insisted.[6] Had reports indicated that the safety of the school would be compromised? “Please reach out to your peers and let them know they are valued.”[7] Did this include Republican peers? Furthermore, if some students were not feeling valued, maybe what they really needed to hear—for their own good—is that their inner feelings of value should not depend on external circumstances. Lastly, presumably without any evidence—a legal term—of any student being mistreated, the dean added, “And, if you witness someone being mistreated because of his or her politics, religious beliefs, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender, please do not sit silently by.”[8] It is odd that after the campaign season the dean would assume that political mistreatment would be an issue. Even if Donald Trump has personal views on particular religions, races, ethnic groups, and homosexuality, to assume that students would begin mistreating each other is a stretch, to say the least, and that presumes that the dean knew Trump’s personal views. I submit that the dean was simply laying out the laundry list of partisan causes—going well beyond even the issues then at hand. In other words, the dean was representing a partisan position whose Democratic candidate(s) had lost.
Even in ideologically overextending his reach by “warning” his students, the power-seeking dean modelled how unchecked assumptions can result in muddled reasoning. That he presented such “reasoning” as sound and valid meant that the students’ own cognitive lapses were enabled. He did nothing to improve the students’ legal reasoning, but maybe the underlying problem is that he was not oriented to legal education as per the contents of his email. I submit that a dean has an obligation in leading a school to stay on point in the sense of focusing on the dissemination of knowledge, which includes sharpening reasoning abilities. Put another way, good reasoning and a value on higher education should be major factors going into the hiring of deans.

[1] Emily Walkenhorst, “UALR Law School Dean to Exit Post,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 19, 2016.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.