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Dissent simmers at St. Mary’s law school

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
San Antonio, Texas

Three and a half years ago, when Barbara Aldave was fired as dean of St. Mary’s University law school, it was a move that Marianist Fr. John Moder, university president, hoped would bring peace. Describing himself as battle weary from conflicts over her social justice approach to legal education, he charged a search committee with finding a dean who could unite a divided faculty.

So far, that goal is a long way off.

In late November, 10 faculty members stormed out of a meeting with the new dean, Bill Piatt, proving that sharp differences over the school’s mission remain.

“You are not chairing the meeting. You are railroading,” Ray Valencia, a law professor, shouted at Piatt before the walkout. Nearly a third of the faculty members present filed out, bolstered by cheers from a group that calls itself Juntos for St. Mary’s.

Juntos, a coalition of students, alumni and community members, had viewed proceedings through glass doors. Protestors, who included several nuns, were immediately cleared from the building by armed guards.

The conflict in a nutshell is this: Dissenters claim the university’s administration is dismantling programs that Aldave built up, including systems she put in place to train more Mexican-American and African-American lawyers. Such lawyers are needed, its supporters say, to defend the human rights of the 80 percent of people in South Texas who cannot afford a lawyer.

Those who prefer a more traditional law school approach, including many of San Antonio’s power brokers, have long feared that Aldave’s programs were undermining the school’s standing. Aldave was fired in 1997 after nine years as dean.

The specific issue at the late November meeting was a slate of proposals that would require professors to grade first-year students more harshly, while raising the grade point average required to stay in school. The proposals, to be effective immediately, were approved.

Minority students will likely be most affected, according to Marsha Huie and Emily Hartigan, two of the professors who walked out.

Enhancing school’s reputation

Supporters of the proposed change say it will raise the percentage of students who pass the Texas bar examination on the first try, thus enhancing the school’s reputation.

Piatt insists that the school is on the right track. “We are all interested in producing attorneys who will work for social justice. But you must first become an attorney -- graduate and pass the bar exam. What motivates us is a love for this institution, a desire to see it strengthen, a desire to see our students do well academically and become attorneys.”

During Aldave’s tenure, minority enrollment in the first-year class had grown dramatically, from 7.5 to 43 percent, but the percentage of students passing the bar on the first try had sharply declined. Aldave’s critics accused her of conducting a social experiment at the school’s expense.

Thirteen members of the full-time faculty, who objected to the slate of proposals at the November meeting, argued that, because of different emphases in early schooling, minority students need rigorous training in basic academic and exam-taking skills and a strong learning environment, with the chance to make mistakes in the first year.

Over 92 percent of St. Mary’s law school graduates do eventually pass the examination.

As part of Aldave’s strategy for redesigning the law school to focus on unmet needs in South Texas, she introduced clinics to represent poor people whose human rights had been violated. She introduced courses in public interest law, environmental law, Catholic social teaching and alternative dispute resolution, as well as a course in capital punishment law, in which students did pro bono work on behalf of prisoners on Texas’ crowded death row. She envisaged the creation of a network of resources equivalent to a major law firm that would devote itself exclusively to pro bono work, and got a $500,000 grant to start it.

International advocacy also had a role. St. Mary’s leadership in drafting the Ban Land Mines treaty was recognized when 124 nations signed the treaty at Ottawa in December 1997.

All this was in line with Aldave’s previous record, which included membership in Amnesty International, Bread for the World, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Gray Panthers, Pax Christi and NETWORK. Aldave served as the first lay president of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby.

National and even international praise was not long in coming. In 1997 the American Bar Association gave St. Mary’s its “Public Interest Law School of the Year” award. The California-based Hispanic Business magazine, in its annual ratings of law schools for Hispanic students, ranks it third in the nation. Awards have come from the Association of American Law Schools and the Clinical Legal Education Association.

When Aldave was dismissed, more than 200 supporters showed up at a meeting and pleaded with Moder to reconsider. Refusing to yield, he assured students in a written statement that Aldave’s vision for the law school continued to have his full support and that of the trustees.

When Piatt succeeded Aldave as dean in June 1998, he began to stress different priorities. Less than a year later, in April 1999, Jon Dubin, director of the clinical programs, resigned. In a letter to the university president he said the law school’s social justice mission had been abandoned and the clinical programs were being contracted and dismantled.

Dubin, the only African-American tenured full professor in the history of St. Mary’s, is now a tenured full professor at Rutgers-Newark School of Law. He holds a position once held at Rutgers by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Hostile climate

Monica Schurtman, who was director of the Human Rights Clinic, told NCR that the climate quickly became so hostile that she, too, decided to leave. She is now at the University of Idaho Law School Legal Aid Clinic.

Most of the conflict has centered on the Human Rights Clinic which, in addition to immigration cases, studied work and health problems on both sides of the Mexican border, focusing on such issues as torture of indigent Mexicans to extract forced confessions, exposure to hazardous materials, clean-up of toxic dumps and conditions in maquiladoras on the Mexican side.

“When I was there,” Schurtman said, “these non-immigration issues constituted half of this clinic’s work load.”

The most time-consuming project was a groundbreaking legal complaint charging the Mexican government with failing to enforce its own laws on health and safety in two U.S.-owned manufacturing plants in Mexico. More than two years of fieldwork and research of U.S., Mexican and international law resulted in a book-length document. This pioneer study attracted international attention as the first test on health and safety related issues of the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, the labor standards agreed to by the United States, Canada and Mexico. More than a dozen university and human rights groups in Canada, the United States and Mexico signed on as co-sponsors to the complaint.

The complaint charges that workers at the two plants were required to use toxic substances without proper protective equipment, resulting in gashes, chronic pain in hands, wrists, arms and back. It also charges that workers permanently disabled while still in their 20s were fired without the compensation provided by Mexican law. Babies born to workers suffered a markedly high number of birth defects, including anencephaly and spina bifida, according to the complaint.

The plants are subsidiaries of Breed Technologies Inc., of Lakeland, Fla., which is described in the complaint as one of the world’s largest auto parts conglomerates. The defendants are the Mexican government’s labor, health and social security agencies.

Withdrawal without notice

On July 7 of last year, Piatt notified the National Administrative Office in Washington (an arm of the U.S. Bureau of International Labor Affairs) that St. Mary’s, formerly one of the lead parties to the complaint, would no longer participate in the case. The withdrawal without notice, Hartigan told NCR, violated the code of professional responsibility for Texas lawyers. A lawyer must confer with the client and must make sure that the client will not be harmed or prejudiced by withdrawal.

Piatt rejects the suggestion that the school’s action was out of line. He told NCR that Schurtman had not been authorized by the university to file the complaint. Schurtman says by way of rebuttal that the dean had personally authorized the filing.

What is clear is that St. Mary’s as an institution is no longer active as a party to the complaint, though several of its students and former students, and also Schurtman, continue to work on it on their own time. Parties to the complaint include five trade unions in the United States and Mexico, two religious orders, including the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers; human rights clinics of two other law schools, including Columbia University School of Law, and the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, a tri-national network of more than 50 religious, human rights and labor groups.

Dissenters contend it is also clear that Aldave’s clinical programs are shrinking, as Dubin charged. Miguel Negron, an immigration attorney in New York, has been hired part-time to supervise the Human Rights Clinic, which now has three students, down from a previous average of nine to ten. He visits San Antonio for two and a half days every other week, and he is responsible for only 20 of the 72 cases that were active when Schurtman left. He is accepting no new cases.

Piatt denies that he is downgrading the clinics Aldave put in place. “We are spending more money on the clinics than ever before,” he told NCR. “We have more faculty supervision in the clinics than when Monica [Schurtman] was here. ... There are more teachers in the clinics than at any point. There is a better teacher-student ratio than ever before.”

Huie and Hartigan insist that morale in the law school is at an all-time low. At least 20 professors and members of the professional staff have left or taken leaves of absence since Piatt became dean. (Apart from scheduled retirements, only one professional staff member left in Aldave’s first 30 months as dean.) Another 10 are openly challenging Piatt’s leadership, as evidenced by their Nov. 27 walkout.

“I think the issue is quite simple,” Huie told NCR. “We have in South Texas, the region St. Mary’s serves, a typical colonial situation. We have a majority of ‘natives,’ the Mexican Americans, and a minority of ‘settlers,’ the so-called Anglos. What Aldave was doing was empowering the natives and consequently threatening the power and privilege of the settlers. So we have to take sides. Are we with the rich or with the poor? Which side was Jesus on?”

National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 2001