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Op-Ed: Minority Student Program at 50 — Still Centerpiece of Rutgers Law

At the half-century mark, Rutgers’ MSP has transformed the face of legal education at the school where it began and across the country

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Paul Tractenberg

This past Saturday, April 14, Rutgers Law School celebrated the 50th anniversary of its Minority Student Program, an enormously successful effort to diversify not only the law school, but also the entire legal profession in New Jersey. At a full-day symposium and an evening banquet attended by 700, many of them from among the program’s 3,000 alumni, current MSP students, and supportive faculty and administrators, there was a mix of serious talk and celebration about a pathbreaking program. The MSP may have been the first such program at a law school in the nation. It was adopted and implemented three years before the “Harvard Plan” at that law school, and it is without doubt the only law school program that has survived legal and political challenges to reach this year’s 50th anniversary milestone.

The Minority Student Program was born 50 years ago, in 1968, out of strife and dissatisfaction, but with hope for a better future. The 1967 rebellions in Newark, Detroit, and other American cities planted the seeds, and the national and state responses nurtured the embryonic development. This was both a painful time and one of heightened aspirations for Americans and New Jerseyans of color.

Rutgers Law School in Newark was at the eye of the storm. It occupied a relatively new building in downtown Newark on the developing Rutgers-Newark campus. In a sense, it was of the city and had been since its predecessor law schools were first established there in 1908.

From the start, its student body differed from those of most American law schools of the day, reflecting immigrant groups, those whose families didn’t have a tradition of attending schools of higher education, and even women at a time when that was unheard of in legal education.

But the Rutgers Law faculty and student body of the 1960s bore little resemblance to the emerging population of Newark. Both faculty members and students were overwhelmingly white and male. The law school was a highly visible white bastion in an increasingly black city. Indeed, Ackerson Hall, its new home on University Avenue, looked rather like a fortress designed to protect its inhabitants against hostile forces outside.

Role of black students in 1967

The events of 1967 could have led Rutgers Law to turn even more inward, away from the city outside its walls. The wonder is that that did not happen. A major part of the credit goes to the handful of black students in attendance at the law school and at the undergraduate program on the Rutgers-Newark campus. They used various tactics, some of them highly confrontational such as the takeover of Conklin Hall by the undergraduate Black Organization of Students and the formal indictment of the law school by the Association of Black Law Students (ABLS), to force the rest of the Rutgers community to confront complex and difficult issues.

Fortunately, they found some kindred spirits on the faculty and in the law school and university administration. First among them was the law school’s dean Willard Heckel, a champion of human and civil rights. Heckel was the head of Newark’s antipoverty agency, the United Community Corp., and the national moderator of the Presbyterian Church. In the late 1960s, he led the law school forward to confront the challenges of the day with kindness, calmness, and decency, but also with forceful leadership.

To understand the scope of the challenges the law school faced then, you need to know that in 1967 of 2,500 undergraduate students at Rutgers-Newark, only 62 were black — and just a few years earlier there were only 20. At the law school, the situation was no better. Between 1960 and 1967, a total of only 12 nonwhite students graduated. Since Rutgers Law School was a major preparer of New Jersey lawyers, it was hardly surprising that, as of 1969, there were fewer than 60 African-American attorneys among 8,000 lawyers practicing in the state, and even fewer Hispanic and Asian-American attorneys.

The Minority Student Program was the most direct response to that gross imbalance, but it was only one aspect of the law school’s transformation in the late 1960s. The curriculum was overhauled, clinical education got a more secure foothold at Rutgers Law than at most law schools, and a schoolwide commitment was made to imbue all students with a determination to use law to advance the public good.

In the spring of 1968, the faculty of Rutgers Law School in Newark voted to implement a plan for admitting black students starting that fall — the Minority Student Program or MSP. Of an entering class of about 150, 23 black students were enrolled, and, later in the fall, the school committed itself to a five-year plan to double the number of “negro and minority group attorneys in the state.”

In the years between 1968 and 1978, the MSP flowered and so did Rutgers Law School. Those were the incredibly exciting years of the “People’s Electric Law School,” and the initial influx of students of color grew apace. As early as 1971, about 20 percent of the law school’s student body consisted of black students. In short order, the target increased to 25 percent and was achieved, and the program was expanded to include other students of color and eventually “disadvantaged white” students.

Meeting and overcoming challenges

To maintain its momentum, Rutgers Law School and the MSP had to overcome two major challenges in the next 20 years — the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in the Bakke case and an Office for Civil Rights (OCR) inquiry in 1997. Either could have signaled the end of the MSP, but neither did. Either could have resulted in the law school defending the MSP as it was then constituted “to the death,” but in both cases the law school thought outside the box and reacted counterintuitively. And in both instances, the law school community responded as it had in 1968 and 1969, as a broad community of faculty, students and administrators whose collective priority was to find a way to save the important program it had so daringly created in the 60s and nurtured thereafter.

Fast forwarding to the present, Rutgers Law School has been able to maintain its diversity profile and its academic standing. The MSP has been transformed to a postadmission support system whose participation level has been stable at about 30 percent each year, and the percentage of students of color in the law school as a whole is close to 40 percent. This was all achieved despite changes in federal equal protection law that made reaching results like these more difficult.

Another exciting expansion of MSP occurred in 2015 when, as a result of the merger with the Rutgers-Camden Law School, the MSP was launched in Camden. A growing number of MSP students there joined the more than 190 MSP students in Newark. Both locations provide a rich program that helps their students succeed in law school, develop important relationships with more than 2,500 MSP alumni, and obtain meaningful summer and post-graduation legal work.

At the MSP’s 50th anniversary, Rutgers Law School can point to a proud, vibrant and still greatly needed program that has enriched the law school, the state, and the nation. Celebrating the MSP’s remarkable history is also a time to look forward to its future contributions.

Paul L. Tractenberg is a professor emeritus at Rutgers Law School. Since his retirement from full-time teaching in January 2016, he has established a nonprofit organization, the Center on Diversity and Equality in Education, to house his ongoing project on the Morris School District, New Jersey’s and the nation’s only district regionalized for racial balance by order of the state commissioner of education. Tractenberg also established and was the first director of both the Education Law Center and the Institute on Education Law and Policy at Rutgers.

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