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Law school follies: An infinite series


So here’s a little story from the law school world. In the video below, a professor at Columbia Law School is asked a question by a student who approaches the podium before the start of an Evidence class. Evidence is usually a required course in law school though I don’t know if it is at CLS; the point here is that it’s a giant lecture course with probably something like 150 students in the auditorium.

Although you can’t hear the student’s exact question it’s clearly a request of some sort that the professor slow down the pace at which he lectures. You can hear the student say something about how there are a lot of LLM (meaning foreign/English as a second language) in the class. The professor says curtly that he’s been teaching for 46 years, and that it’s an “assumption of the risk” for ESL students to take the class — I don’t get the impression that the student asking the question is herself an ESL student — so he’s not going to slow down the pace of his lecturing.

After she walks away he mutters “fuck you” under his breath, which I’m almost sure the student herself didn’t hear him say at the time, but which was captured by the “hot mic,” as they say in the biz, which was recording the class. Let’s go to the tape:

Because of the way we live now, this incident seems to have generated quite a little scandal.

Gillian Lester, the dean of Columbia Law, told Law.com that she has communicated with Capra to let him know that his “language, and the disrespectful attitude it conveyed, were unacceptable.” She has also met with students to “express my own sorrow about this incident.”

Columbia Law has an “unequivocal commitment to fostering a welcoming learning environment for all students,” Lester said.

The Columbia Student Senate also weighed in:

Attending law school at Columbia is a rigorous endeavor. Many students, whose first language is English, struggle to keep up with the speed of courses. For some members of our community, this is even harder. Some students face unique language challenges while attending courses taught in a language different to their mother tongue at the Law School. These challenges are compounded by the speed at which some professors speak and the complexity of topics covered.

As a community, we renounce any type of non-inclusive behavior that does not take into consideration this reality. As a student body, we firmly believe that a safe and inclusive environment is essential for the academic success and well-being of all students, and we are committed to ensuring this environment exists for students of all backgrounds. We accordingly expect the faculty and administrators to take all necessary steps to uphold this core principle.

Thoughts and prayers:

(1) As a law professor who was recently subjected to a facially ludicrous accusation of “unprofessional conduct” by my employer, this is what unprofessional conduct looks like. Yes students can make exasperating requests, although this one seems potentially quite reasonable — maybe he really is going too fast, all things considered — but it goes without saying that this sort of reaction, even sotto voce, is way over the line, deeply inappropriate, etc.

(2) Can we have a frank talk here, without giving aid a comfort to the fascists like Ron DeSantis who are trying to wreck higher ed in this country, about how in some instances the language of “safety” and “inclusivity” and “trauma” and “sorrow” is going a bit far these days? For example, it would have been appropriate for Gillian Lester to announce that this conduct is unacceptable from anybody teaching at Columbia Law School, and therefore the professor in question — Daniel Capra — wasn’t going to teach there after this semester (He’s an adjunct faculty member, about which much more very shortly). But meeting with CLS students “to express [her] own sorrow about this incident” seems a little . . . performative.?

I mean maybe Gillian Lester should express her own sorrow about the fact that she’s charging those students $82,467 per year in tuition to enter a miserable profession, aka big law firm practice, where half of them are going to want to kill themselves within a year or three of starting to try to pay off the debt they’ve incurred from $250,000 in tuition payments, not counting whatever they’ve borrowed to live on the island of Manhattan, which I’ve heard can be expensive.

As for the Student Senate statement, Above the Law, which was appropriately critical of Daniel Capra’s indefensible behavior, has a good measured take on that:

The statement also hones in on the profanity as marginalizing and deeply unprofessional, which…. I mean, it is, but also grumpy authority figures willing to hurl profanity at you is a key part of lawyering. We can all agree that we should have a more humane and respectful profession and endeavor to change it for the better, but it’s a reality.

So yeah, on the one hand there’s a lot of deplorable reactionary rhetoric about college kids these days being special snowflakes, but there’s increasingly an actual on the other hand here.

(3) On the other other hand, let’s look at the economic logistics underlying this incident. Daniel Capra has been on the Fordham Law School faculty for 42 years. He was on the Tulane faculty for two years before that, so I don’t know how that adds up to 46 years in teaching but whatever. Using the magic of the Google machine, I discovered that Prof. Capra’s wonderful life currently features teaching a four-credit Evidence class at Columbia from 3:00 to 4:50 on Mondays and Wednesdays, and then teaching a four-credit Evidence class at Fordham, which I understand employs him on a full-time basis, from 6:00 to 7:50, also on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Now I don’t want to traumatize the respective administrations at these two distinguished institutions by asking, as civilly and professionally as possible, what the [expletive deleted] is this [expletive deleted]? Columbia charges its students $82K and change per year, but can’t be bothered to have a core required class taught by one of is very own wildly overcompensated faculty (I bet Gillian Lester gets paid $650K per year)? Instead it imports a 117-year-old guy from downtown to do it on the cheap, before he rushes up north of 110th street to deliver the same overly fast lecture he just delivered for the 50th time in his career?

And Fordham, while it’s true you’re only charging your students $69K and change per year — what a bargain! — how in the world is it OK for you to sign off on your own wildly overcompensated very senior but still very full time faculty member to be moonlighting — or afternooning I guess — at Columbia, before he drags his tired old [expletive deleted] in front of those students, to give the very same lecture he just delivered an hour earlier at another school, where he’s a cheapo hired gun during the very same semester where he’s being paid to work full time at your very own school?

No wonder he’s so grumpy!

(4) Here’s a funny little related story about Columbia Law School, sort of. I was told recently that a certain professor who I will not name, but whose name would cause a certain commenter at LGM to metaphorically explode in laughter, was hanging out at CLS for a semester — I don’t think he was teaching — while on leave from his semi-prestigious but not nearly as prestigious as CLS law school. He was hanging about in the almost certainly vain hope of getting a job at CLS, as he more or less admitted to my informant. But the more pathetic note in this story is that this professor — who is 40ish and unmarried with no kids — also admitted that his major life goal at the moment was to buy an eight million dollar house. In pursuit of this goal, he was investing his discretionary income in various extremely speculative and extremely risky ventures, since obviously a law professor’s salary, even the munificent sums bestowed on CLS professors, should he unexpectedly ascend to those blessed realms, was going to be far too penurious for him to achieve his major life goal of buying an eight million dollar house.

The end.

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