When we first reported on Mary Lu Bilek’s upcoming departure from CUNY Law, we added the line, “It’s still not entirely clear from this report what happened.” Bilek’s email describing the events that fueled her decision to resign in the near future referred to “a misguided effort to draw an analogy with a model of reparation to me as the dean for racial inequalities at our school to be held responsible I thoughtlessly referred to myself as the “slave owner” who should be held accountable. “That is certainly a strong detail, but it also seemed to depend a lot on the context that was not in the report.
A letter to the CUNY Law Community on behalf of the student government attempts to fill in these gaps by stating, “The dean made a statement that we feel that what happened is skewed.”
1. A white junior faculty member, Dean Allie Robbins, has been asked to accept an appointment as academic dean. This appointment was unanimously endorsed by the Personnel and Budget Committee (P&B) in April 2020.
2. After the initial vote on the appointment, Dean Bilek brought the idea to the P&B Committee to grant Dean Robbins an early term.
3. If Dean Robbins is offered an early term, the reputation of a senior tenure track faculty, particularly a senior BIPOC faculty, will be disregarded. These efforts also ignored the fact that an uninsured faculty that previously held dean positions had not received an early term. In addition, the BIPOC faculty was told that an early term without a MacArthur Genius Grant would never be possible. Hence, such an early tenure exemption has only been investigated on behalf of a white person.
4. Nobody believes the idea of an early term came from Dean Robbins
Perhaps this is a function of the proliferation of dean’s assistants, but the title sounds like one that should go to a permanent professor. On the other hand, instead of promoting someone new, just pull someone out of the existing ranks.
5. In large part due to concerns from P&B members Profs. Kassem and Whitlow, the government’s attempt to grant early tenure to a white faculty member before a senior BIPOC faculty, failed.
6. During the P&B meeting in October, which was now also attended by Profs. Dean Bilek, Kassem, Huertas-Noble, Lamdan and Whitlow expressed disappointment that he could not offer an early term in office. After Dean Bilek received a setback on racism from these committee members, he said, “I am the slave owner here, not Allie” and “If anyone has to pay reparations, it should be me.” When asked to repeat herself, she literally did so. This direct quote was provided by Professor Kassem during the faculty meeting on March 19, 2021.
The letter from the student government characterizes this as “The dean compares herself to a slave owner and invokes images of the larger CUNY community, and especially the black members, to be the ones she imagines to be enslaved.” It reads more like she is pushing herself, rather than the junior candidate as the person responsible for all racism issues, during the tenure by bringing out the nuclear example of white responsibility for racism in a way that highlights the importance of the Problem diminishes in contrast to actually imagining yourself as a slave owner. But in any case, these are the different interpretations that everyone benefits from openly discussing … which did not happen.
These comments were forwarded to the Faculty of Permanent and Permanent Employment in December. This prompted a group of faculties to ask them “to resign or reject positions or roles that convey the perception that you are an” anti-racist dean. “Bilek chose the former. UPDATE: I got that wrong … apparently the phrase “resign or reject” should mean which is “a perception that you are an” anti-racist dean “as opposed to” resign, quit or reject “positions. “In any case, she resigned immediately, which I think was one way of completing that request, but not the only one.
Since then, the letter has claimed that Bilek tried to keep the reason for her decision to resign a secret:
13. Dean Bilek has repeatedly refused to post such information. She put forward a number of reasons, including that these were personnel decisions to prevent her statements from leaving the P&B committee. After the faculty extracted this information from P&B, Dean Bilek stated that there was an investigation at CUNY Central and they had been instructed not to make any statements. In addition, there were concerns that disclosing these details could affect the school’s ability to attract dean candidates and prospective students, retain current students, raise funds, and cause harm to the school in general. Some of these concerns were confirmed by some faculty members during the faculty meeting on 3/19/2021 prior to actual disclosure.
14. At the Race, Privilege and Diversity Committee meeting on 3/18/21 (notes available here), student government officials were informed by the faculty that Dean Bilek was retiring after a “racist approach and testimony” and that faculty was retiring not free to share anymore.
By keeping this matter under wraps, the school was deprived of any opportunity to anticipate what would happen. The letter reads: “CUNY Law will never be able to deal with the anti-black racism in its institutional fabric if it does not want to admit that it is there.” In the end, this lack of transparency did the most damage. The ill-conceived attempt to skip the term failed, and the remarks in the meeting were terrible but could have been spoken one way or another if everyone had been allowed to know and then talked about them openly and honestly Real time. Instead, everything was allowed to fester in secret for months – in a way that even the ultimately correct decision to leave does not resolve.
Yesterday’s article gave Bilek the honor of standing aside, contrasting that reaction with law professors across the country refusing to apologize or even cease racist activity. And that’s still true. However, as this article also noted, we can approve of a comparatively better reaction without this replacing the actual goal of not allowing these situations to arise at all.
Earlier: CUNY Law School Dean abandons ‘slaveholder’ remark
Joe Patrice is Senior Editor at Above the Law and co-moderator of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter for all the law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe is also the managing director of RPN Executive Search.