Statement on Racial Justice from Dean Mark C. Alexander

We are at a crucial moment in our history. 

The United States is reckoning with a long past of discrimination and systemic racism. The Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law is at an inflection point as well, reckoning with how we have—whether intentionally or unintentionally—excluded members of our community by our words and deeds in the past and present. This behavior is contrary to who we strive to be—as a nation and as a Law School. The events of summer 2020 illuminate not only how the nation must enact change, but also how the Law School must continue to grow by advancing racial justice in our academic community. An estimated 26 million people across the country took to the streets to demand an end to violence and oppression in Black communities in the United States. Through their acts, we are reminded to find concrete and visible ways that we can do our part to dismantle structural racism.

Summer 2020 only highlighted the need for action—it is not the cause. Throughout my time as Dean, I have seen the hurdles we face in educating students of color, and in particular Black students. From admissions, school performance and support, inclusion and personal satisfaction, bar passage, all the way through to employment, doing our best by Black and minoritized students is one of my constant concerns. I see and feel the challenges they face.

In a message to the Villanova community, University President the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, speaking as an Augustinian friar, a Catholic, a human being, and as the leader of our University said:


“Black lives matter. These words draw our attention to the prejudices, injustices and racism endured by Black men and women in this country since its founding. More important, these words recollect a history of physical brutality, senseless death and systemic oppression endured by the Black community. I understand the intention behind that phrase now, and I hope others in our community do as well. Black lives do matter.” 


I fully support these words, and the Law School administration stands in solidarity with today’s advocates for positive change and with generations of civil rights leaders in this country. As our Black Law Students Association and others have asked, we will use our privilege to fight for and to protect others.

As evidenced by its founding and its Mission, Villanova has been devoted to diversity, equity and inclusion since its inception. Whether by the very nature of its founding to educate children of Irish immigrants who were facing prejudice to admitting Jews to the Law School in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the University has committed to fulfill its motto of Veritas, Unitas, Caritas, or truth, unity, love for all. But for all our efforts and aspiration, we have not reached all our ideals. The University’s first students were all White men, as were almost all of the first students at Villanova Law. Even though Jews were admitted at the Law School, they have not always felt welcome. Similarly, efforts to achieve meaningful inclusion of Black students at the University have faced a rocky road, and today some of our Black and minoritized law students feel excluded.  

The preamble of our nation’s Constitution calls for “a more perfect Union,” acknowledging that we strive and aspire toward perfection. Similarly, the founder of the Augustinian Order, St. Augustine of Hippo said, “Become what you are not yet.” We are ever inspired by these words.

Thus, we constantly look to do more as there is always more work to be done. In 2018, Villanova University made diversity, equity and inclusion a pillar of its Strategic Plan. Villanova Law also committed to diversity, equity and inclusion as a key part of its college-specific Strategic Plan. Efforts are already underway in each of these plans.

As Dean, my solemn responsibility is to advance DEI initiatives and strive for a more just academic community and world. I also feel an obligation as a lawyer and a citizen, to work to make our community better and stronger. Further, as a Black man, I know the challenges I have faced, while at the same time, I am cognizant of my own privilege and opportunity. For all of us and all our efforts, I am constantly mindful that this discussion is not simple, static or one-dimensional. As we speak of the importance of diversity, we also remember that we seek it along many lines, including race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, thought, socioeconomic background, and more.

We recognize that having a diverse community is fundamental to advancing racial equity. Over the past several years, the Law School has lagged behind the national average in both total diversity and that of our Black student community. In a recent survey, more than 70% of students stated that the student body should be more diverse, and nearly 50% said that it should be much more diverse. Both of these percentages well exceed our population of students of color; our students seek this diversity in their community. Increasing our diversity will train more lawyers, many of whom will further the mission of serving the underrepresented. We must not lose qualified candidates because they do not see both those who are similar to them, but also those who are different from them, in our community. Our faculty has become more diverse over time, and we continue to recruit in support of our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Our current staff is tremendous, and we know we must continue to seek diversity in hiring. Our students have asked for this as well. We must always strive to do better.

We are currently living in a moment where race is front and center, but our commitment to the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion is, by definition, all-encompassing. In the longer historical context, and in light of recent events, we share with you steps that the Law School is taking to advance racial justice in our academic community.

One major step is the development of a Racial Justice Action Plan. It is borne of our strategic planning process, efforts of our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force, input from our professional staff, and feedback from Villanova University’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Racial justice requires a group effort and we present a group solution.

As outlined in our Action Plan, we continue our commitment to more fully embracing diversity and racial justice and building a vibrant community representative of the profession that we hope to see in the future. The Action Plan highlights ongoing efforts underway while also those yet to be undertaken. There will be other initiatives from the University that the Law School will join. The Law School’s Plan calls for a collective effort between faculty, staff, students and the administration to act for meaningful, systemic change. This change can and must be permanent in order to reflect our values as a Law School. This is not only in the context of our current times, but for the long-term. We must try hard, and we must also judge ourselves by our results even as we realize that change may take time. 

Racial Justice Action Plan

A.    Increase the racial diversity of our student body.

The admissions staff has hired a new Assistant Director of Admissions who is charged with, among other duties, developing a program to increase diversity. The office will improve development of a pipeline of students spanning from high school to law school. Increasing opportunities to attend law school begins with identifying and encouraging students of all ages with aspirations of attending law school. We are strengthening our relationships with Historically Black Colleges, including our 3+3 and 4+3 admissions programs to have students commit to Villanova. Finally, we are targeting marketing in many areas, including to HBCUs, that will make clear to students of color the benefits that Villanova Law, its curriculum, faculty, students and careers have to offer. This marketing includes the following:

Direct mailings to potential candidates designed to increase the pool of candidates and show them why Villanova is the right school for them;

Affinity Group outreach and programming, including student panels to be held with potential and admitted applicants;

Admissions workshops to demystify the law school applications process and make it easier for applicants of color to apply to all law schools; and

Admitted student programs designed to both accentuate the benefits of Villanova, the diversity that we offer, and how we will support every student from the orientation through bar passage and beyond

These are only some of the efforts (all of which are already underway during this year’s admissions cycle). As part of our ongoing strategic planning process, faculty and staff with responsibility over admissions, academic support, student affairs and curriculum have met and will continue to meet to review our existing efforts to recruit, retain and support a diverse student body for the purpose of identifying areas for improvement that can be implemented now and in the future. This includes meetings with students and the Minority Alumni Society. 

Our goal is consistent increases in applications, admissions and matriculations of students of color. We will annually review efforts with the community and seek continuous improvement.

B.     Increase the racial diversity of our faculty and staff through hiring and retention.

The Law School’s ongoing strategic planning process has identified a strong imperative to prioritize diversity and equity in faculty and staff hiring and retention. For the past several years, we have advertised in various locations designed to spur more interest among communities of color. Our faculty and staff hiring supervisors have participated in diversity training in hiring workshops offered by the University.

As with students, pipelines are important, and we will seek better ways to attract candidates of color and interest them in working at Villanova. We have heard from our students that staff that understand the particular background, needs, and challenges of our students of color is very important to their success. As part of our ongoing strategic planning process, the administration and faculty appointments committee will examine our current hiring practices and identify specific proactive improvements to engage in more inclusive hiring. Those staff supervisors who have not completed the diversity in hiring training will do so, working with the Associate Dean for Finance and Administration to implement proactive improvements for more inclusive hiring, particularly for Black faculty and staff.

C.     Recruit a leader for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

The Law School aspires to hire a person to lead its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts with strategic and programmatic responsibilities.  The administration is working to create a budget to support the creation of this position as soon as possible after the University’s current hiring freeze due to the COVID-19 pandemic is lifted. In the meantime, I am responsible for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Law School, and I have tasked Bo Connell, our Associate Dean for Administration, Finance, and Strategy to lead and implement our DEI initiatives.

D.    Increase diversity on the Board of Consultors.

As part of the Office of Alumni and Development’s ongoing revision of procedures for the Board of Consultors, the administration and Board has already increased and will continue to increase diversity on the Board so as to be more broadly reflective of our entire law alumni community.

A.    Enhance curricular opportunities.

  1.   Offer specific courses focused on law, race and social justice.
    In recent years we have significantly expanded and enhanced our course offerings in the areas of race, law and social justice.  In Summer 2020, Associate Dean Candace Centeno sent an email to students specifically identifying courses focusing on race and/or social justice and encouraging students to take advantage of those courses. These include:

Critical Legal Theory (fall)
Fair Housing (fall)
Human Trafficking (fall)
Public Interest Lawyering (fall)
Race & the Law: Asian American Experience (fall)
Sentencing and Punishment (fall)
Crimigation: Crime and Immigration (spring)
Criminal Justice, Race & Media seminar (spring)
Civil Rights Litigation (spring)
International Human Rights (spring)
Intergroup Dialogue (spring)
Poverty Policy (spring)
Pretrial Detention (spring)
Race and the Law seminar (spring)

Moving forward, we will continue to review our curriculum, consult with students and affinity groups and identify specific topics that may be incorporated as course offerings, such as mass incarceration, reparations, racial capitalism and the intersectionality of race and gender.

2.  Expand coverage of issues of law, race, and social justice in existing courses.
Race permeates the law because it permeates our history and our contemporary society.  To the extent our academic instruction does not always reflect this, it should.  Through workshops and discussions, faculty will increase their understanding and abilities to integrate issues of race and bias into their courses. This past summer, we held several of these workshops. The administration will encourage all faculty to address these topics in their courses, including the incorporation of the scholarship and perspectives of Black academics and advocates, and ensure they have the necessary resources to do so.

3.  Develop partnerships with other University colleges and departments.

The relationships between race and law are inherently interdisciplinary. Other University colleges and departments, such as the School of Business and the Department of Sociology and Criminology, have faculty with expertise and experience on issues of racial justice. Over the years, we have collaborated with some of these faculty members by having them teach classes or present at faculty workshops. We will continue to seek potential joint programming and curricular offerings and encourage interdisciplinary scholarship and pedagogy to leverage the expertise of our University colleagues.

B.     Enhance extra-curricular opportunities and events.

1.  Institutionalize racial justice and inclusive community-building programming in Orientation.

The Law School’s Orientation conveys important messages to our incoming students about what to expect from the Law School community and what the community will expect from them.  Orientation has for years included programming regarding racial justice, diversity, inclusion and community building.  This year’s Orientation expanded and enhanced that programming, emphasizing the importance for all law students and lawyers of inclusive community and fighting racial injustice.

2.  Create a summer reading group on police violence.

Over Summer 2020, faculty, staff and students participated in discussion sessions on the history of policing, police reform, qualified immunity and abolitionist analysis of the criminal system, among other topics.  These discussions have allowed participants to read and reflect together on how we arrived at this moment in the legal system, and to share perspectives on how we move towards a better future.

3.  Create a Racial Justice Reading Group

Starting in Fall 2020, the Racial Justice Reading Group will convene small groups of faculty, staff and students meeting informally to discuss issues of racial justice. The Reading Group will meet throughout the academic year; anyone is welcome to attend any of the meetings.  Readings will draw from a broad range of topic areas, reflecting the pervasive role of race in American society.

4.  Formalize our policy regarding diverse representation on panels for all events

Outside speakers enrich the Law School community by sharing their experiences and perspectives, whether it is a practice roundtable for students or a panel at one of our symposia. Faculty, staff, and students generally attempt to achieve diverse representation in outside speakers, but a formal policy will help make those efforts more consistent and deliberate.  We have an existing diversity policy for symposium speakers, which we will enhance and broaden to all events—both live and virtual—starting in Spring 2021.  

5.  Support student organizations to engage in collaboration and dialogue.

Student organizations are at the heart of our community.  We can harness their energy and dedication by encouraging and supporting intergroup collaborative programming addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion.  This is relevant to all our varied student organizations, not just the affinity groups.

6.  Host symposia.

Our symposia offer opportunities for the entire Law School community, including alumni, to come together for focused examination of important and timely issues.  Moving forward, we will encourage symposia to focus on issues of race and law, including both entire symposia and topics covered within symposia.  This year’s 2020 Villanova Environmental Law Journal Blank Rome LLP Symposium and the 2021 Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal Symposium will both include panels on racial justice in related fields. Faculty will propose at least one topic related to racial justice for the Annual Villanova Law Review Norman J. Shachoy Symposium.

C.     Offer workshops and discussion groups for faculty and staff.

Faculty and staff input during our ongoing strategic planning process has indicated a strong desire for opportunities to learn and discuss how we can better incorporate issues of racial justice in our work.  Over Summer 2020, faculty convened a series of workshops and small-group discussions to build our own understanding of race, diversity and racial injustice, and to examine the ways in which we can enhance our educational environment and strengthen our pedagogy and scholarship to advance racial justice.  These discussions continued throughout the Fall 2020 semester and will continue during the Spring 2021 Semester.  Additional workshops, training, and discussions have been organized for staff, and more are planned.

D.    Create an online resource guide.

Making progress toward racial justice requires all of us to educate ourselves regarding the impact of race in our society.  Some of that education can take place in classrooms, at events and during training sessions.  To augment those organized activities, we are creating an online resource guide to help students, faculty and staff self-educate on issues of race, diversity, equity and inclusion.

E.     Help Diversify Legal Academic Leadership

In 2018, Villanova Law became a co-sponsor of the Promoting Diversity in Law School Leadership Workshop, previously held every other year.  It is now an annual event, held at Villanova Law every other year, designed to encourage and assist members of underrepresented groups to pursue deanships and other university and law school leadership positions.

The law school will continue to support this Workshop and other efforts to support diversity, equity and inclusion in academia and the legal profession.

A.    Form a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force.

The Law School has long used a standing committee of faculty, staff and students—operating under different names and structures at different times—to address issues of inclusiveness in our community. In Spring 2020, as part of our strategic planning process, we created a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force composed of faculty and administrators.  Over Summer 2020, Dean Alexander convened listening sessions with students, faculty and staff regarding racial justice at the Law School and the Task Force focused on racial justice initiatives.  In Fall 2020, the Task Force expanded to include administrators, faculty and staff and the mandate will return to addressing diversity, equity and inclusion more broadly.  The Task Force will hold regular listening sessions, provide ongoing feedback on our institutional efforts, and hold annual town halls with the administration on our progress towards our goals, which will include the action items in this plan.

In Fall 2020, members of the DEI Task Force held listening sessions with departments across the institution to begin mapping out successes and identify past challenges to advancing equity, fostering an inclusive educational environment, and diversifying our students, faculty, and staff.  Initial conversations identified a need for additional resources, stronger relationship building and a broader institutional commitment to diversity and inclusion moving forward. The Task Force will continue to meet with stakeholders throughout the year and will produce a report that will be available to every member of our community that will describe the lessons learned from past DEI efforts and track our progress towards the goals outlined in this plan. 

B.     Climate Survey

The Law School will run an annual Climate Survey to assess the progress being made through our efforts and to solicit ongoing feedback from our community regarding the cultural climate at Villanova Law. Our goal is continuous improvement in the experiences of our faculty, staff, and students, considering in particular how people of color view the school. We have already implemented a survey for last year’s graduating students.

C.     Diversity Tracker

We will implement a diversity tracker on our website to present statistics, as our sister college, the Villanova School of Business has done.

D.    Meetings of the administration and affinity group leaders.

We can gain valuable feedback on our efforts to increase inclusiveness by ensuring frequent and direct communication between students of color and the administration.  To enhance this communication, the administration will continue to meet with affinity group leaders to share information, ideas, experiences and concerns regularly throughout the year.

E.     Create communications platforms on diversity, equity and inclusion with educational resources and events. 

Part of being more intentional about our diversity and inclusion efforts is being more transparent about what we are doing, so that members of the Law School community can take full advantage of the opportunities available and can provide input and feedback to improve our efforts. We will work with ODEI to gather input and work to improve campus climate. In addition, the Law School’s commitment to racial justice, diversity, equity and inclusion needs to be publicized to those in the broader community, including prospective students.  To those ends, the Law School will create enhanced communications platforms, including pages on the website, aimed at better sharing information about our diversity and inclusion efforts and at soliciting information from members of the Law School community about how we are doing and how we can improve.