Megan Wilhelm, a member of the Black Law Student Association at UC Law SF (formerly UC Hastings), stands outside the campus on May 15, 2023. She alleges student accounts of racism on campus have gone ignored by the school's administration. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
A group of students of color at UC College of the Law, San Francisco, allege the school downplayed multiple complaints of discriminatory behavior and racist marginalization on campus and claim administrators have done little to develop a more inclusive environment.
The issue became abundantly clear to Megan Wilhelm during her first year at the law school formerly known as UC Hastings.
“I would cry every day,” said Wilhelm, who just finished her second year at the school. “It got to the point where I didn’t know if I was going to come back that year. ‘Draining’ is the word I would use.”
During a legal research and writing class, Wilhelm was assigned an oral argument around workplace discrimination. The case involved an employee who called another employee the N-word, and Wilhelm was tasked with defending the perpetrator’s employer.
Wilhelm recalls being the only Black student in the room asked to participate, and said she felt alienated when a teacher’s assistant told other students they could use the N-word because it was a fact of the case.
After discovering that the case involved a majority-Black workplace, Wilhelm said she recalled telling the class, “You have no idea what this conversation is.”
She said she was marked down on her grade for the assignment, and later broke down crying in the library.
When she complained to her professor about the experience, the professor brought the issue to Dean of Students Grace Hum, who was also responsible for advising on issues of diversity and inclusion, as well as providing guidance on student and personal life, according to the university’s website. But the professor later informed Wilhelm that the dean did not consider it a pressing issue.
Hum resigned last month to take a job in the executive office of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The university provided a written statement but declined requests to interview Hum or other officials.
‘We need more Black attorneys’
“There was no source, no outlet to talk about it and make sure that it could change,” Wilhelm said. “Why was this even an option of cases that we should be discussing without any background or any cultural education about it?”
Wilhelm is among a group of students of color at the school who say they are struggling from a lack of support, and have accused some professors and key administrators of largely dismissing their grievances. That, they argue, is an issue of particular concern, as they prepare to enter a field vastly overrepresented by white people.
“It’s also not about individual students. It’s a pattern,” Wilhem said. “I just know that if I don’t say something, more people are going to be hurt, and we need more Black attorneys, not less.”
“And if they’re going to sit here and advertise that they’re a social justice-focused school, they need to have a system that supports us and protects us from the harms that they are continuing to put us through,” Wilhem added.
A quiet pattern
Just over a year ago, students at UC Law SF shut down a speaking engagement featuring Ilya Shapiro, a conservative legal scholar. Shapiro, who was invited by the campus’ chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, had recently posted racist tweets denigrating the Black female judges President Biden was considering for the Supreme Court.
“For us, it was trying to convey a message that we are tired of being treated like second-class citizens. We are paying the same tuition as white students and we aren’t getting the same treatment,” said Dominique Armstrong, then co-president of the school’s Black Law Student Association, who helped organize the protest.
“There isn’t much acknowledgement of race, and our administration has done little to address the racism and misogyny in our coursework,” she said.
But shortly after the demonstration, the administration sent students an updated policy introducing new rules for campus protests and counterprotests.
“Impermissible forms of protest are those that substantially disrupt an in-person or virtual event in a way that has the effect of silencing a speaker,” the document reads. “This includes but is not limited to forcing a change to the planned event format; disregarding time limits or other event guidelines to prevent speakers or other attendees from participating; preventing a person from speaking or being heard via such means as heckling, making noise, standing in the area of a room reserved for the speaker, blocking the speaker or event organizers from accessing AV equipment, blocking the views of attendees attempting to view the speaker; using or implementing technology features, such as the mute button and the camera button.”
The updated policies were adopted Oct. 1, 2022.
Now, students involved in that organizing effort say the protest was merely a flashpoint in a much broader campus discussion about freedom of speech and how administrators should respond when students bring up their experiences of racism and sexism.
Until meeting other organizers at that protest, Sonja Chen, who just completed her second year as a student, didn’t realize that a traumatizing experience she had had soon after starting the school was hardly unique.
During orientation, a fellow classmate taunted Chen over her race, she said.
“Without prompting, this person immediately was like, ‘You should thank Lyndon B. Johnson and the New Deal for you being a student at this law school, because without him, Chinese people wouldn’t be allowed in this space,’” Chen, who is Chinese and white, told KQED.
“I was very much taken aback by that framing of history,” she added. “But also I wasn’t wearing a name tag or anything that was identifying me specifically as Chinese, and I thought that that was just very confronting to be called out immediately on one specific race, especially after COVID.”
Chen came to Hum, the dean of students, to report the interaction.
“When I first brought this to [the dean’s] attention, she focused on the individual man’s rights around free speech and basically said there’s nothing that she can do,” Chen said. “There was no option generating. There was no plan of action. And I left feeling really disheartened.”
According to Chen, the dean later offered to change Chen’s schedule so she and the other student wouldn’t have any classes together.
“The second meeting, I told her this is still on my mind,” she said. “And she offered me to switch sections, which means you have to switch your section for every single class. So that’s just a very disruptive offering.”
Officials at the university declined to comment on specific incidents, but said the administration is actively working to address its systems and culture to be more inclusive of students from all backgrounds.
“When a student would like to express a concern about racist or other bias-related issues, they have a variety of resources upon which to rely, including reporting the issue to the Provost and Academic Dean, the Dean of Students, or a variety of other administrators ready to support,” UC Law SF Chancellor and Dean David Faigman said in an email response to KQED. “Administrators and staff members often engage in informal mechanisms to help resolve differences and provide opportunities for learning and reflections for all community members, including faculty, staff, and students.”
The school is also actively recruiting its first ombudsperson to facilitate conflict resolution, Faigman said. He pointed to a list of initiatives on campus that aim to promote diversity and inclusion, such as a program specifically for students who are the first in their families to go to law school; merit-based scholarships for students from historically Black colleges or universities (HBCUs); and about 20 affinity groups.
“UC Law SF is committed to ensuring that all our law students feel a sense of belonging, so we intentionally and thoughtfully created programs and initiatives to inculcate that feeling within our community,” Faigman added.
In 2022, the school decided to change its name, following years of pressure by advocates who underscored that Serranus Hastings, the school’s founder and a prominent politician and rancher, participated in the genocide of thousands of the Indigenous people in California. The new name went into effect on Jan. 1, 2023.
Still, many student advocates of color say the school’s recent efforts fall short and student voices are not driving the conversations about inclusivity.
“To hear those discussions coming from the faculty of the name change and how it would affect all these student organizations, it was totally missing the mark,” said Chen. “Y’all are out searching for Pluto and we’re looking for water on Earth right now.”
As classes were wrapping up for the most recent school year, students from the protest and others who had come forward to report issues with racism made one final push to elevate some of the roadblocks they’d run into when reporting discrimination on campus.
They posted flyers asking peers to share their experiences with Hum. Within days, they received dozens of examples in which the dean and other administrators had responded dismissively to student concerns.
During the last week of classes in April, a group of about 15 students attempted to hand-deliver a hard copy of the examples to Hum, only to find she was not on campus that day.
They instead met with Morris Ratner, the school’s academic dean, who spoke with them for nearly 30 minutes about their concerns and advised them to refer to formal complaint processes in the student handbook.
After the meeting, students hugged with teary eyes. For some, it would be the last time they would see each other before graduating. Others said they planned to continue pushing their demands next fall.
The school has since started its search for a new dean of students, and several student organizers told KQED they would like to see students from different corners of campus represented in the hiring process.
“They know why I applied to law school. It was to change a systemic issue of oppression. It was to address racism in our country. It was to call people out for hurting others and making spaces feel like they aren’t meant for people like me,” Wilhelm said. “That was in my admissions essay. But they’re surprised now that I’m saying something.”
Stay in touch. Sign up for our daily newsletter.