Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Westerfield Views Return to Ole Miss Law School as Historical

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Westerfield Views Return to Ole Miss Law School as Historical

Article excerpt

Westerfield Views Return to Ole Miss Law School As Historical.

by B. Denise Hawkins

When Louis Westerfield, dean of Loyola University Law School in New Orleans, returns to the University of Mississippi he will inherit a racially troubled legacy and claim the distinction of being "the first."

Westerfield, who was selected recently to head the University of Mississippi Law School, will be the institution's first African American dean. He has served as dean of Loyola's law school since 1990.

Taking the new job July 1 will mean a return to familiar ground for Westerfield, a Mississippi native who grew up in New Orleans and graduated from Southern University at New Orleans and Loyola Law School. He was a visiting law professor at Ole Miss during the summers of 1980 and 1989, and on the regular law faculty there from 1983 to 1986.

Westerfield applied for the Ole Miss deanship in 1986, but was turned down. Eight years later, Westerfield insists that racism was not a factor. He was one of three finalists then -- the other two were white males. This time Ole Miss sought him.

"In my opinion I thought I was qualified. This time I was nominated for the deanship. I was assured by the selection committee that they were serious about considering me. I was assured that I was not going to be a token.

"The ostensible reason I was not selected is that I was an insider. They were looking for an outsider and they mentioned my lack of experience. The important thing now is that I am going there and moving forward," says Westerfield.

But race was a major factor in the 1986 selection process at Ole Miss, contends Alvin Chambliss Jr., the Oxford, MS attorney for the Black plaintiffs in a higher education discrimination case against the state. According to Chambliss, written testimony entered in the case told of a law school -- Ole Miss -- that is "not ready for a Black dean" and that "a Black dean would not be selected."

Citing American Bar Association (ABA) reports from 1991-93, a source close to the university, said the law school had been beset with a host of "irregularities" including inadequate staff compensation and professional development and poor library resources. Attempts to reach James P. White, the ABA's consultant on legal education, and Frank Reid, the deputy consultant, were unsuccessful.

In 1992, a 10-page report issued by the ABA Section on Legal Education concluded that the overall environment for minority students was lacking. Enrollment of African American students was sparse, and an attrition rate of "50 percent for minorities was unacceptable" compared to the average 10 percent rate for white students at the law school.

Carolyn Ellis Staton, the university's acting law dean, denied reports that the institution had ever been placed on probation.

"To my knowledge we have never been put on probation, nor have we ever had our accreditation in jeopardy," says Staton, adding that "minority student attrition and faculty salaries" have been the law school's only points of concern.

"A recent site visit from the ABA praised us for accepting at-risk students that no other law schools would take. It's unfortunate that the name, the University of Mississippi, would harken back negative images of long ago for people outside of Mississippi and the South. They forget that there has been enormous progress here, especially for minorities," says Staton.

Of the university's 22-member law faculty, two are African American. An African American female law professor from Stanford will join the faculty this summer, Staton says. …

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