Penn Law School Dean Ted Ruger announced last week that Penn Law professor Amy Wax would be barred from teaching a mandatory first-year course. While students and alumni largely expressed gratitude for this action, many say that more needs to be done for diversity initiatives at the school.
After Wax claimed that black Penn Law students never graduated in the top quarter of their class and "rarely, rarely" in the top half, students and alumni drafted a petition calling on Ruger to take action against Wax.
Nick Hall, president of the Black Law Student Association and third-year law student, said members of BLSA promoted the petition and spoke with Ruger over spring break. More than 780 people had signed the petition, according to Hall.
“It’s a step in the right direction that Professor Wax has been removed from teaching [first years],” Hall said. “But there is more work to be done regarding diversity and inclusion at top law schools and we look forward to working with Dean Ruger and his administration to make good on his promise to develop concrete action.”
Wax did not respond to request for comment.
Several Penn Law alumni drafted the petition addressed to Ruger the week before spring break, including 2009 Penn Law graduate Amy Laura Cahn, 2003 Penn Law graduate Julius Towers, 1999 Penn Law and Master's of Public Administration graduate Donyale Reavis, and 2012 Penn Law graduates Ayana Lewis and Ginene Lewis.
Ginene Lewis, a former member of BLSA, said her initial “frustration” was less with Wax and more with Law School administrators because they did not react in an “appropriate” way the last time Wax's controversial statements garnered widespread criticism.
In August 2017, Wax co-authored a controversial op-ed arguing for a return to 1950s American cultural norms. In a subsequent interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian, she said Anglo-Protestant cultural norms are superior.
Ginene Lewis added that although she appreciated seeing Ruger take action against Wax, there is still more room for discussion about how the school can further promote diversity.
“I walk away from the letter with the hope that the actions Dean Ruger discusses at the end [of the letter] will involve a diverse and inclusive group of people to discuss how the law school moves forward,” she said.
Ayana Lewis, who was also involved with BLSA and took Wax’s "Civil Procedure" course during her first year at Penn, said she was “livid” when she heard Wax’s derogatory comments about black students.
She added that she has been actively petitioning against Wax since she was a first-year law student.
According to Ayana Lewis, Wax was promoting her book, “Race, Wrongs, and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century,” at an event on campus in fall 2009.
Following the event, Ayana Lewis organized a panel discussion entitled "Revisiting Race and Remedies: Should the Government Play A Role in Eliminating Racial Disparities in Education and Employment?" in spring 2010. She said she invited Wax to participate and noted that she brought conservative columnist John Derbyshire as well.
During the debate, Ayana Lewis recalled, Derbyshire made offensive comments about black students and said she later asked Wax during her office hours if she held the same views.
“Her response was, ‘You can have two [different species of] plants in the forest under the same conditions and one will just grow higher,’” Ayana Lewis said. “From that point on, I was just so furious that [a first year] of any color would be forced to learn from and be in the presence of this woman who was blatantly racist.”
Ayana Lewis and other alumni sent the petition to Ruger on March 9 and later met with him to discuss their demands three days later, on March 12.
“To hear that no first-year student will be forced to learn from prof. Wax was a milestone,” Lewis said.
She added, however, that she thinks there is still more work to be done. Although Wax has been barred from teaching mandatory classes, she will still be teaching electives, according to Ruger’s statement.
“We don’t think any student who wants to take the courses she’s teaching should have to take those courses if she’s the only one teaching them,” Ayana Lewis said.
The petition also called on Ruger to remove Wax from the Law School’s Clerkship Committee and any other committees involved with directing the school. Ayana Lewis said that although her position on the committee was not addressed by Ruger’s statement, it is an action for which they plan to continue to push.