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Penn Law School on Feb. 4, 2021.

Credit: Max Mester

Penn Law School — which is preparing its case for a Faculty Senate hearing against law professor Amy Wax — will take several steps to bolster equity and inclusion, including a 68% increase in financial aid and a new website to track school-wide diversity.

Penn Law Dean Ted Ruger and Associate Dean for Equity & Justice Arlene Rivera Finkelstein announced the new measures and shared updates on current initiatives in an announcement to Penn Law students on Feb. 8. The school’s equity and inclusion initiatives were developed after working with students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

“The continued collaboration with our Law School community and across the University provides new and exciting opportunities to continue the momentum to advance equity and justice broadly,” Ruger and Finkelstein wrote in the announcement. 

New financial support measures for students include an increase of the emergency assistance aid cap to $8,000. The Dr. Sadie Alexander Scholarship program, created last year in honor of the first Black woman to graduate from Penn Law, will be expanded to include two additional full-tuition scholarships for the 2022-23 academic year.

Ruger and Finkelstein wrote that the school will contribute over $8 million in new investments over the next five years to increase financial accessibility. The 2022-23 academic year will also mark the launch of the Equity & Inclusion Fellows program, which will focus on skill-building and training students interested in leading discussions on race and equity.

Penn Law is also looking to add more intersectional courses focused on “underrepresented causes and communities.” The announcement states that a website to track gender and racial diversity of faculty, staff, and students will launch by the end of the spring 2022 semester. 

As the school undertakes these steps, it will host Listening Sessions for small groups throughout the spring semester. Ruger and Finkelstein wrote that the Office of Equity & Inclusion plans to "complete" its staff and update the community on its efforts in April. 

“All the initiatives are on the right track and address genuine needs,” Penn Law professor Anita Allen wrote in a statement emailed to The Daily Pennsylvanian. 

Ruger established Penn Law’s Office of Inclusion and Engagement in 2019 with a focus on increasing diversity and inclusion at the law school. This followed a summer of controversy generated by Wax, the tenured Penn Law professor with a documented history of discriminatory remarks against Asian and Black Americans.

Penn Law unveiled its latest equity initiatives three weeks after Ruger announced a formal faculty investigation to determine whether Wax’s public conduct has impacted her classroom teaching. Ruger wrote in a Jan. 18 statement that Wax’s conduct has led to multiple complaints from University community members since at least 2017, which have cited Wax’s comments as a “cumulative and increasing” promotion of white supremacy. 

Ruger’s initiation of the sanctions followed a Jan. 3 petition created by Penn Law third year Apratim Vidyarthi and other law students calling on the University to suspend Wax. The petition, which has since garnered more than 2,500 signatures, was sparked by Wax’s recent claim that "the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration."

Vidyarthi is continuing efforts to hold Wax accountable and is scheduled to speak at the University Council Open Forum on Feb. 23. He said that he discussed the sanctions process and the new equity initiatives with Ruger, Finkelstein, Dean of Students Felicia Lin, and Deputy Dean for Equity & Inclusion Tobias Barrington Wolff in a meeting about Wax on Feb. 9.

Vidyarthi encouraged anyone “who has ever had a negative experience” with Wax to share their experience with him or Lin. All evidence will become part of the evidentiary record that the Faculty Senate will evaluate to determine whether a hearing about Wax’s conduct should begin. 

“If they hold the hearing, then that will all be behind closed doors,” Vidyarthi said, adding that Ruger’s office will act as the prosecution and Wax will likely be represented by a team of lawyers. 

In addition to the equity initiatives announced on Feb. 8, Vidyarthi said that Penn Law expressed openness to working with affinity groups and student leaders to create a standardized process for handling future instances of discrimination by faculty.

“Right now, we've been sort of walking in the dark for two reasons, because this process hasn't happened over the last 30 years, and because the Faculty Handbook and behavioral standards are really unclear,” Vidyarthi said. 

He added that the equity initiatives Penn Law announced, including the expansion of financial aid for underrepresented groups, are a “good start,” but there is still more the school can do to advance equity. 

“Our work is only just beginning because we have so few people of color,” Vidyarthi said. “Less than 15% of the tenured faculty are people of color.”

Vidyarthi said that even after conversations with Ruger and Penn Law, students still feel the University has not heard their wishes.

“I want to continue to emphasize the complete lack of statement and engagement from the University. [Dean Ruger] has sat down with us, and we've had a productive conversation. It feels like they understand where we're coming from," Vidyarthi said. "But pretty much nothing from the University in terms of ‘We understand what students are going through. We apologize for the kinds of statements that have been made.’ There is complete silence and that's really unfortunate."