'Go Forward and Seek Justice'
'Go Forward and Seek Justice'

Creighton School of Law prioritizes issues of diversity and inclusion

By Blake Ursch

For many Americans, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and James Scurlock — as well as countless others before and since — have violently exposed a stark reality: the discrepancy between law and justice.

As the nation contends with its legacy of structural racism, the Creighton School of Law — like the University as a whole — has made issues of racial justice and diversity a top priority. Through administrative efforts, faculty and staff commitments, and student-led initiatives, the School of Law is working to create a welcoming program for students, faculty and staff of color, one that takes an active role in University and community conversations about creating a more equitable world.

The hope is that by increasing diversity in enrollment and cultivating an open environment for conversations around race, Creighton will prepare a new generation of legal professionals who will be well-equipped to create a more just system and rectify mistakes of the past.

“Certainly, things have come into even starker relief in the last six to eight months. But the concepts, the social acknowledgement of these issues, goes back much further,” says Joshua Fershée, JD, dean of the School of Law. “We need lawyers who have a connection and cultural sensitivities to the people who need representation. It is critically important that our legal professionals really understand the issues of their clients. Getting more people in the profession who have these shared experiences increases the ability to serve larger groups at a higher level.”

Currently, about 20% of the law school’s enrollment is composed of students of color. This, Fershée says, is a number that admissions officials continue to try to cultivate and improve through targeted initiatives.

“We’re trying to look at systematic things we can do to increase recruitment and matriculation,” he says. “We do targeted outreach. We participate in diversity fairs and programs that connect us with students of color. We’d like to do more targeted outreach, speaking to more diverse audiences and making sure that we’re not doing a monolithic campaign, showing all sorts of different groups what we have to offer them. And hopefully people find what we have to offer appealing.”

The law school also offers several scholarships specifically intended for students of color. The most recent of these comes from Colorado-based alumna Megan Hottman, BA’01, JD’04, nationally recognized as the “cyclist lawyer” for her work representing bicyclists and advocating for safer cycling across the U.S.

Last summer, Hottman committed to funding for the next three years the Megan M. Hottman Annual Scholarship Fund, a $5,000 scholarship intended for a first- year Black woman law student in good academic standing who demonstrates financial need.

In June, after the Creighton University Twitter account posted news of Hottman’s financial aid on social media, former Creighton basketball standout Doug McDermott, BSBA’14, replied that he would match the funding.

“This was a good snapshot of someone saying, ‘Wait a minute, I can do something to help women of color have the same opportunity that I had,’” Fershée says, “and, in fact, she inspired someone else to do the same.”

But the Hottman scholarship isn’t the first intended to cultivate diversity in the School of Law. The Evelyn E. Labode Endowed Scholarship provides financial aid to first-year Black students with a demonstrated history of volunteer work and service to others.

In addition, the Frances M. Ryan Diversity Endowed Scholarship is awarded to applicants who will promote diversity in the School of Law. Ryan, who died in 1998, was a trailblazer in her own right as the first female faculty member in the Creighton School of Law. Having experienced discrimination herself as a woman in the legal profession, Ryan was a champion for diversity during her time at Creighton, serving as an advisor to the Black Law Students Association, coordinator of the Graduate and Professional Opportunities Program and chair of the Minority Affairs Committee.

The law school also bestows the Elizabeth Pittman Award on Black graduates “who possess the same qualities of excellence, perseverance and dedication,” as the first Black woman to graduate from the Creighton School of Law, Judge Elizabeth Pittman, BS’47, JD’48. Pittman, who eventually became the first Black judge and the first female judge in Nebraska, served from 1971 until 1986 on the Omaha Municipal Court. In 1998, Creighton dedicated the Elizabeth Davis Pittman Building on campus, marking the 50th anniversary of Pittman receiving her law degree.

These two women’s legacies highlight an ongoing goal for the School of Law: Creating a supportive environment for students of color once they arrive at Creighton. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has since made holding in- person events on campus more difficult, Fershée says he’s been part of discussions about planning events for students of color from all of Creighton’s professional schools to give them a space to share their experiences and learn from one another.

For Traemon Anderson, BSBA’20, being part of a robust, supportive peer community has been crucial for his Creighton experience. Anderson currently serves as president of Creighton’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA). The group, Anderson says, “caters to minority populations within the law school and offers them support and opportunities to make connections with alumni and the community.”

“I think it’s important because, in a lot of fields, but especially in regard to law, minorities are very underrepresented. When you come to law school at a place with a heavy Caucasian majority, you kind of feel left out, you feel like you can’t talk about some of the issues you’re going through,” Anderson says. “In BLSA, we have a very open atmosphere where people are free to share, ‘Hey, I’m going through this. I’m struggling with this.’ And someone’s always there to say, ‘Hey, I struggle with that, too.’ For minority students, BLSA provides an environment where minorities feel understood and heard.”

For the past year, the group has been working with Dean Fershée, the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion and the University administration on a plan for Creighton to join other Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) schools in recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an academic holiday.  (The revised spring 2021 semester began on Jan. 27 — after MLK Day — but the University still recognized the holiday.) BLSA is also working to organize a multi-series panel event this spring, that focuses on systemic racism and connections to criminal justice and law enforcement.

BLSA, Anderson says, gives students a platform to share their concerns and participate in conversations about race at Creighton and elsewhere. This platform, he says, became particularly important last summer, during the protest movement spawned by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

The movement eventually spread to Omaha where, in May, protester James Scurlock was killed in a racially charged confrontation with local bar owner Jake Gardner. The ensuing legal drama — the Douglas County Attorney’s initial decision not to charge Gardner, the call for a grand jury to review the case, the determination of a special prosecutor that there was evidence to charge Gardner and the latter’s suicide — made headlines nationally.

Raneta Mack, JD, holder of the Skinner Family Professorship in Law, was quoted in the Washington Post speaking about the case: “In order to give the community a sense of justice, I think the county attorney agreed having a second set of eyes on (the case) was the best course of action,” she told the newspaper.

The case fueled further protests in Omaha. In July, a Creighton law student, acting as a legal observer for a Nebraska civil rights attorney, was arrested and held for more than 20 hours by Omaha police.

For BLSA, the situation locally and nationally necessitated the need to speak out. In June, Anderson and Deanna Mathews, BA’18, former BLSA president, shared a letter with Fershée, expressing the organization’s stance on recent events and giving voice to the pain and dismay shared by many of its members.

Fershée shared the letter with the School of Law’s alumni groups as wellas the alumni advisory board. Hoping to give it a wider audience, he eventually posted it on change.org, where it has now received more than 200 signatures of support.

Many of these conversations about race, policing and the criminal justice system have made their way to the School of Law’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, headed by Kendra Fershée, JD, professor in the law school. The committee — composed of the director of admissions, the dean of students and several student representatives and faculty members — serves in a type of advisory role for other committees that have diversity and inclusion needs, Professor Fershée says.

“The idea was to put together a committee that has these tentacles, sort of reaching out to all these other committees and back, so there’s a direct conduit with committees that are touched most directly by diversity and inclusion and that might need our input the most,” she says.

But one of the committee’s other roles is to serve as a kind of active listener for diversity and inclusion-related concerns from students, faculty and staff, she says. In the wake of the summer’s protests, she says the committee has heard from students who want to learn more about criminal procedure.

“We heard from students who were getting questions from friends and family members about what was happening in Omaha with respect to the James Scurlock and Jake Gardner situation. There were a lot of students getting questions from people asking about how the grand jury process works,” she says. “They were saying, ‘We would really like to learn how these processes work so we can talk to our friends and family about what’s supposed to happen.’”

So, for the spring semester, the School of Law plans to hold virtual discussions with Mack, who specializes in criminal procedure. The diversity and inclusion committee has also been talking to other faculty members who would be interested in presenting on the implicationsof racism, sexism and anti-LGBTQ sentiment in the legal system.

The law school also developed a new course that focuses specifically on race and the law and is being offered this spring.

“We’re really trying to focus a lot of our programming efforts this year on issues of diversity and inclusion in every respect. We’re keeping it at the front of our minds on really everything we do,” Professor Fershée says.

“What we’re trying to teach our students is that they are to go forward and seek justice. And it’s impossible, in a country that has grappled with the effects of racism and sexism and homophobia for centuries, to fail to address issues of justice without acknowledging how our biases impact justice,” she says. “The law is a reflection of how people interact, and it’s really our obligation to ensure, as law professors, that our students understand the huge impact that history of bias can create in real-world terms.”

Article published in the Spring 2021 Creighton Lawyer Magazine

Photo Caption: From left to right, former law school faculty member Frances Ryan; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; current law student Traemon Anderson, BSBA’20 ; the Hon. Elizabeth Pittman, BS’47, JD’48; and current law student Deanna Mathews, BA’18. (Illustration by Alex Williamson)