When given lemons, make lemonade.
That is the approach leaders of Gonzaga University and its School of Law are taking after a pair of divergent columns written by GU community members and published in the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal this summer revealed strife over political ideology and discourse in the institution.
The dialogue began on July 3 when the commentary “Seeing Red: A professor coexists with ‘MAGA’ in the classroom” by Jeffery Omari, a visiting assistant professor in the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Gonzaga School of Law, hit the internet.
Omari shared his experience last spring instructing a class which included a student in the cohort wearing a Make America Great Again hat.
“From my (progressive) perspective as a black man living in the increasingly polarized political climate that is America, MAGA is an undeniable symbol of white supremacy and hatred toward certain nonwhite groups,” Omari wrote in the ABA Journal’s “Your Voice” section. “… Thus, in that moment, I was unsure whether the student was directing a hateful message toward me or if he merely lacked decorum and was oblivious to how his hat might be interpreted by his black law professor. I presumed it was the former.”
Omari, who declined to speak with The Gonzaga Bulletin, questioned the attire for its lack of professionalism and outlined his experience deciphering how best to handle a situation where he felt his blood boiling.
He concluded that higher education institutions “... should weigh the benefits of exclusionary, in-class political speech against the divisive burdens such speech places on students, staff and faculty.”
Within days the article gained traction online inciting responses from both sides of the political spectrum and making GU the spotlight of a national discussion on race and free speech within academia.
“The national exposure that the American Bar Association article created was a reminder that we are in a larger context and the current political landscape that we are in,” said Raymond Reyes, GU’s associate academic vice president and chief diversity officer.
The notoriety only grew when a month later Austin Phelps, a third-year law student at GU, published a response to Omari in the ABA Journal.
While Phelps, 22, wasn’t the subject of Omari’s column, his piece, “Conservative student says law school biases infringe on his right to free speech” shared Phelps’ concern of “… ostracization among my peers and castigation from professors …” for donning MAGA clothing.
This trepidation became reality when Phelps was questioned for wearing a “#BuildTheWall” T-shirt to an internship in the law school’s practicing law clinic. Days later law school faculty began to ensure compliance with a dress code prohibiting attire with messages or slogans.
“To me and a lot of other people it was particularly fueled by Omari’s article, because it empowered, per say, some of the liberal professors, liberal faculty to come out,” Phelps said in an interview last month.
In his writing, Phelps called for substantive conversation within the law school as opposed to generalizations based on political beliefs.
“Next time you see someone wearing the red hat, in the classroom or on the street, take five minutes to ask them about why they wear it instead of avoiding the conversation,” Phelps wrote at the conclusion of his column. “With a mindset absent of any prejudice, you may understand that there is logic and reason behind the principles that conservatives stand for, as there is for liberal beliefs. When liberals and conservatives come together in mutual dialogue, progress and understanding will result.”
In an interview with The Bulletin, Phelps said that at the law school the political ideologies of liberals dominate conversations as conservative students face fears that sharing their standings may be political suicide within the field of law.
Phelps said he wrote the column to combat the misconceptions Omari is practicing in his writing.
“My purpose was to start the discussion of, yeah we are Republicans, we are Donald Trump supporters, but instead of thinking we are racist, ask us why,” Phelps said. “Have that discussion, because all too often we sit in our Republican camps, we sit in our Democrat camps and that is all we see.”
As considerable attention was drawn to GU by both columns, university administrators were tasked with addressing a discourse that has yet to dissipate in the law school.
“Both articles crystallized the need for long-overdue conversations and action,” said Jacob Rooksby, the dean of GU’s School of Law. “In that sense, both articles have been welcome, because they have furthered dialogue and conversation in quarters where we need it.”
Since the academic year began, the law school has hosted a town hall, numerous faculty and staff meetings and formed a panel, each with a focus on issues raised in Omari and Phelps’ columns including professionalism, cross-political dialogue and self-regulation.
Rooksby said the school is focused on engaging in an organic, community-led process by listening and finding the educational moments within the dialogue at hand.
“We are going to make the path that we walk,” he said
While how to move forward in political discord has been a discussion, clarity on professionalism at the law school has attempted to leave less ambiguity.
According to Rooksby, dress policies regarding professionalism have always been in place, however the enforcement and students’ degree of awareness to these rules may have been less clear. Moving forward, faculty will be responsible for enforcing the dress code, however it is the hope of Rooksby and Reyes that self-regulation ensures there is no need for interpretation.
“The clinic is part of the university and a place where we are preparing people to be lawyers in the real world, so I don’t care whether they have a meeting with people or whatever is going on,” Reyes said. “It is not reflecting the professional world that one is going to enter into.”
A month after writing his response column, Phelps is proud of his contribution to the discussion of ideals on GU’s campus, however he said it has had negative impacts, too. He has overheard peers talking about him, noticed glares in the halls and faced social media backlash.
“I’ve got to the point where I can write an article and have an effective debate with a professor one to one, but I think at the same time it’s a negative of it shouldn’t be this way, it shouldn’t be to the point where any conservative or any liberal or anyone says that their voice is oppressed,” Phelps said.
Reyes said while it may sound odd, he is deeply grateful for both Phelps’ and Omari’s courage and authenticity to speak their truth and begin this discussion.
If a student, staff or faculty member feels they are the victim of a bias incidents or hate crime, Reyes urges them to contact the university’s Bias Incident Assessment and Support team at gonzaga.edu/reportbias for assistance from the 15-member team of faculty and staff who analyze the situation and attempt to turn it into a teachable moment.