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Public Interest Programming at CLS

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                                                                                                  November 29, 2010

Dean David M. Schizer
Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law
Columbia Law School
435 West 116th Street 
New York NY 10027

Dear Dean Schizer:

We, the undersigned members of the Columbia Law School community, write to express our disappointment over what we see as a growing lack of institutional support from the law school for students interested in public interest.  We are deeply concerned about the structural changes and turnover at Social Justice Initiatives (“SJI”) over the past few years, culminating most recently in last week’s announcement of Tanya Greene’s resignation. We write to alert you to a wide divide between how much support the administration believes it is providing to students seeking opportunities in public interest and the amount of support that students actually feel they are receiving.  As students who feel strongly about the value that a vibrant public interest program adds to the law school experience, we want you to work with us to bridge this gap.

Based upon our conversations with our classmates, the following issues have emerged as widely shared concerns.  This is not by any means an exhaustive list, but rather a sample of key problems that we would like you to address at the December 6 meeting:

Need for Increased Transparency and Student Input: Currently, there is confusion regarding everything from SJI’s name to its vision, goals and objectives and the reasons for changes to its structure. We need more robust communication about public interest programming at the law school and a mechanism to allow for student input on changes through a steering committee or broader consultative process.

Staff Retention: In the past eleven months, SJI has lost six staff members, ending the mentoring relationships we had developed with them. Dean Chapnick is now the only SJI staff member who worked in the office when current 2L students began their studies just over a year ago. The lack of overlap between the tenures of departing and arriving staff exacerbates the loss of institutional knowledge, resulting in extended periods of confusion. Please explain the reasons for this high rate of attrition.

Personnel Changes:  In early 2008, four of the six SJI and CPIL staff members had at least five years experience counseling students. In contrast, today to our knowledge only one of the five SJI staff members (Dean Chapnick) boasts even a year of experience counseling students. In 2008, four of the six SJI and CPIL staff members had JD or law-related MA degrees as well as experience and contacts developed in the area of public interest law. Recent staffing changes halved that number: at this moment only two SJI staff possess a JD.  In early 2008 SJI and CPIL housed two deans and two assistant or associate directors; in 2009 SJI/CPIL housed only one dean, but there were two director-level positions.  After Tanya Greene’s departure, the office will not have a single director-level employee. Please lay out the law school’s plans to address these personnel gaps or its reasons for the structural changes. 

Career Counseling for 2011: Given the critical need for advising in November through March, the staffing gaps at the office currently are debilitating for students seeking assistance in their pursuit of summer and post-graduate employment. Please identify what steps are being taken to provide counseling to students in the interim, what the anticipated schedule is for hiring replacements for the open positions and whether the administration plans on soliciting student input in the selection process.

Program Cuts: This year, the stipend for first year students through the Guaranteed Summer Funding Program dropped to $3,300 from $4,500. Participation in the Human Rights Internship Program, which funded and trained fifty students for human rights work, was reduced by twenty percent. Please provide the reasons for these cuts.

Demand for Mentoring and Alumni Networks: Existing mentoring and alumni networking facilities through SJI are inadequate. While student groups try to fill this void, CLS needs an alumni database exclusively for public interest careers; this could be easily created from the spreadsheets SJI currently maintains. Please direct SJI to take steps to create this type of resource, if possible. If not possible, please explain why.

In the past, many of us have participated in admitted student programming with zeal and have spoken highly of Columbia’s support for public-interest-minded students.  We now no longer feel confident in recommending Columbia to prospective students interested in pursuing public interest careers, particularly those students comparing Columbia and NYU. We hope that the administration will swiftly reverse this concerning trend so that we can again take pride in our school’s commitment to public interest law.

We look forward to speaking with you at the town hall meeting on December 6th to further present our concerns and to begin a continued dialogue for their redress.



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