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Michael J. Yelnosky became the dean of Roger Williams University School of Law on July 1, 2014.

Dean Yelnosky is a founding member of the RWU Law faculty. He served as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs for four years, and he was named Distinguished Service Professor in 2011. He has also...

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Exploring Equality at RWU Law

Posted by Michael Yelnosky on 04/26/2016 at 11:40 AM

Diversity & InclusionThis law school values diversity and inclusion.  Our commitment is based on three shared principles:

  • First, we believe that the more diverse the law school community is, the more our students will grow intellectually and personally.  Race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, disability, and veteran status, for example, are not perfect proxies for the way a person thinks, but in a law school, where so many of the issues we discuss involve questions of social policy, the most meaningful discussions are those among people from different backgrounds who have different perspectives.  We don’t always facilitate those discussions without missteps, but we are always trying.
  • Second, a diverse student body -- a student body full of people who do not always agree or even look at issues the same way -- helps prepare our students for practice in an increasingly diverse profession, country, and world. That future is exciting and full of promise, but preparing for it takes work.
  • Finally, we believe that, for far too long, certain groups have been excluded from membership in the legal profession and the privileges (and responsibilities) that come with it.  For us, part of the commitment to diversity and inclusion is about social justice -- about making sure that this profession is open to all.

In light of these values, much of what we do here makes sense.  We recruit diverse students, we support them, and we have substantial curricular and co-curricular programs  that put issues of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion and law front and center.

Our newest program is a set of monthly gatherings we are calling our Exploring Equality Roundtables. The program began in December with a discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement facilitated by Associate Dean and civil rights expert Diana Hassel.  A group of students, faculty, and staff sat in chairs arranged in a circle in the Bay View Room, shared pizza, and tried to have an honest and respectful conversation about the movement and the All Lives Matter critique. The discussion was sometimes difficult and deeply personal, and it established a foundation and an informal protocol for the Roundtables to follow. 

January brought a discussion about gender and criminal law led by Professor Emily Sack, an  expert in domestic violence. In February Judge Edward Clifton of the Rhode Island Superior Court (retired), a Distinguished Jurist in Residence, facilitated a discussion about the justifications for and obstacles to a diverse judiciary.  In March we welcomed adjunct faculty member Janet Gilligan and alumnus Patrick Smock '06 into the circle to discuss the remaining obstacles to equality for members of the LGBTQ community notwithstanding the Supreme Court's recent same-sex marriage decision. 

Finally, just last week the series concluded with a Roundtable facilitated by constitutional law expert Professor Jared Goldstein, who sparked a conversation about how to think about and resolve conflicts between norms of equal treatment and anti-discrimination (such as laws prohibiting discrimination in housing on the basis of sexual orientation) and the rights of individuals whose religious beliefs would lead them to violate those laws. We were joined for that discussion by Reverend Nancy Soukup, the university's interfaith chaplain.

While I am pleased that the faculty, staff, and students at RWU Law were able to identify a need for more discourse and quickly address the need, I am under no illusions. There will always be some friction when we have conversations about important social issues in our diverse community. Indeed, it is a measure of our progress in attracting a diverse student body that this friction exists. However, I am willing to take heart in an e-mail I received from a student after one of the Roundtables thanking us for creating a space where she felt "comfortably uncomfortable." 

Thanks to a lot of people who worked very hard to make these Roundtables a reality.