Muslim MLS Student Accuses Faculty of Intimidation

6 August 2019

Content Warning: mentions of anti-Muslim discrimination, Palestine-Israel conflict

Melbourne Law School (MLS) student X* has accused the MLS of misusing its power through intimidation and silencing. This accusation arose after his attempts at raising concerns with the Associate Dean and submitting an open letter to the Law students newspaper De Minimis. The article criticised what he saw as the MLS’s failure to address structural issues Muslim students face in the legal community.

A Complaint Raised

It started when X sent an email late last year to Professor Anna Chapman, Associate Dean of the MLS, raising concerns for Muslim students and the additional barriers they face when getting jobs.

“My concern was that the Law School, because it holds itself to be the number one Law school, has the responsibility to, on our behalf, do something to address that issue of additional barriers for Muslims and other minorities,” said X to Farrago.

In the email, he provided an anecdote from his Muslim friend who was interning as a Clerk at a law firm. His friend was allegedly approached by a Jewish partner who declared his support for Israel and asked for his friend’s thoughts on the matter. This story was used as an example of the discrimination faced by Muslims in the legal sector.

In addition to the anecdote provided, X included general evidence to support his concerns; he pointed out that Muslims are demonstrably more educated than the average Australian in terms of qualifications and yet are less likely to get a job in the legal profession. He also referred to multiple studies showing that people with Muslim names are less likely to be interviewed.

X expected a response that would broadly address the issues that he raised. Instead, Chapman delved directly into the story X shared and enquired on his friend’s personal details. Chapman also said the Law School has no role in the situation as the student is not from University of Melbourne.

Unsatisfied with the response, X replied with, “as a Muslim at MLS I expect that MLS will do something to ensure that this kind of behaviour is not tolerated nor supported and that it has expectations of law firms. Being the number one law school in Australia must come with responsibilities and I intend to publicly campaign for some level of effort on the part of MLS on this issue”.

When Chapman responded, she warned X of his tone without addressing the broader issues he raised. When he sought clarification, X instead received an email from Dr Craig Bird, a Compliance and Grievance advisor, letting X know that a complaint was filed against him by Chapman but no action will be taken.

“I found the whole thing disgusting because obviously instead of engaging with my concerns at all, [Chapman] was just like, ‘I don’t like your tone’, and that was the end of it, which obviously plays into tone policing,” said X.

On 23 November 2018, X received another email from Bird containing the documents detailing of the formal complaint. In response, X appealed to Bird to lodge a formal complaint against Chapman using the same evidence provided by Chapman for his own complaint. Bird referred X to UMSU Advocacy to assist him in formulating any of his grievances. However, Farrago understands this complaint against Chapman was never formally pursued.

In this correspondence, Bird had brought up X’s previous cautions issued by Academic Registrar about his online conduct to remind him of his record. According to X, this was an intimidation tactic to silence him. In his email, he wrote:

“To my understanding, cautions are not significant since they do not amount to substantial misconduct. Therefore, they are not relevant here except to signal the University’s discomfort with something”.

Bird responded with, “These reminders are issued to bring students’ attention to the University’s expectations of their conduct. They are not part of the formal student discipline process. However, they do indeed include relevant information about the University’s expectations”.

Open Letter in De Minimis

After his exchange with MLS higher-ups, X wrote an article for De Minimis about his experience, in the form of an open letter. Through the article, X called into question the way MLS staff addressed his concerns, writing in the draft: “Never-mind that my concern in the email regarded systemic anti-Muslim racism and asked what MLS might do to combat it. When I reiterated this, the senior faculty member chose to police my tone instead of engaging with my concerns and made a formal complaint against me. The complaint was not actioned because it was meritless, but this was a clear attempt to silence me.”

According to De Minimis editor-in-chief Anisha Thomas, the publication has a faculty policy implemented when articles are critical of MLS or its faculty, where faculty are sent the article and given a right of response.

X thus received correspondence from Bird and Chapman contesting the accuracy of some of the proceedings detailed in the original draft of the article. In her response, Chapman said the article “misrepresents and distorts the communications between myself and X regarding this issue”. Bird said X’s accusations were “far-ranging, unspecific and not clearly articulated” and referred to the Student Conduct Policy and Academic Board Regulations.

Bird also brought up warnings previously issued to X by the Academic Registrar. He said, “I urge you to seriously think about whether seeking to publish inaccurate information of this kind may be in your best interest.”

UMSU Advocacy advised X contact from Bird was “unusual” and that “caution before responding further in writing would be prudent”.

For X, his intention of relaying the story was not to seek help for his friend, but rather broader issues of anti-Muslim discrimination in the legal community. He said, “throughout this whole process the focus was on the story and how the student wasn’t a Melbourne Law student—which again, was not my point, the story was to illustrate a point… she saw [asking about the friend] as trying to help, whereas again, I was talking about the broader issue.”

“I wouldn’t even be writing an article if someone had just said, ‘I understand that you’re concerned, let’s talk about it’, and I’m sure that my expectations would have been managed away and there would have been no outcome, but that is still better than what she did, which is complain. Or what institutionally seems to happen is, intimidation… The response should be to allay their concerns. You don’t necessarily have to change anything, but show empathy.”

According to X, MLS’s intimidation tactics to weaponise misconduct behaviours have been effective. This is because MLS students would be required to submit a conduct report issued by the University if they want to be admitted as a lawyer after graduation.

A friend of X’s, who wishes to stay anonymous, also pointed out threats of misconduct proceedings are particularly effective. “The legal community is really small… when you graduate and you want to get admitted as a lawyer, you have to submit a conduct report that’s issued by the university. So any warnings, any complaints, anything, they’re all written on your conduct report”.

X suspects issues relating to his emails with Chapman are already on his record.

“There is a strong incentive for people to not try to say what they think should change, or critique, or question things. Even if they do it in good faith,” he said.

On April 14 2019, a petition began making the rounds on Facebook calling for the attention of University of Melbourne’s law students, Muslims, people of colour and Melbourne Law School’s Student Society. The petition was created while X was attempting to publish the article, claiming, “The University has tried to stop the article from being published in a way that relates the truth”, asking students against racism and discrimination to sign on.

He said to Farrago, “It’s wrong that [when] people raise concern, the [staff’s] concern is that they’ve raised the concern, not with the actual concern itself. And then to silence those people is clearly wrong.”

During this time, X said the Graduate Student Association (GSA) reached out to him to provide support. He met with Fia Hamid-Walker, who at the time was Education and Research Officer, and said it was helpful and supportive. The GSA has not responded to Farrago’s request for comment at the time of publication.

The article was published online on 7 May 2019, but in a “very watered-down form”, X says.

Through the article and petition, X included four recommendations to the Law School, which were:

“1. Ensure students leave MLS understanding the complexity and significance of issues of racism;
2. Invest in researching minority experiences of the law, including prison populations;
3. Empower minority students to make change so that MLS and the legal sector are welcoming and inclusive;
4. Target ethnic minorities in their complexity and take action to ensure the law does not discriminate against us.”

His hope was that the Law School would engage with these recommendations in some way, and said his concern extends beyond Muslim students at the Law School.

When Farrago spoke to him, he pointed out that for minority students studying at the Law School in the meantime, it is difficult to voice concerns to the MLS staff. He hoped the recommendations would push the faculty to open a “permanent way of getting representative feedback from minorities” outside of the Law Student Society.

However, the Dean never engaged with X regarding the petition. He had emailed the Dean asking for a meeting to present the petition but it was disregarded and never seen through.

On April 17, X sent an email to Pip Nicholson, Dean of MLS, to raise a complaint against Bird and Chapman. In the email, he highlighted Chapman’s inappropriateness in handling his enquiry and his rejection of the way Chapman has detailed the situation.

“The emails are clear and alternative characterisations do not change a) the way that Prof Chapman made me feel, and b) the way that she rushed to make a complaint about me instead of engaging with me in good faith. This is despite the fact that I was and remain very clearly distressed,” wrote X.

X shared his side of his story and requested to meet with the Dean of MLS and for the “scope of the drop-in sessions be broadened to include all students from minority ethnic backgrounds”. He also requested that Chapman and Bird be removed from having anything to do with the matter, and that “threatening emails from Dr Bird and MLS cease and that MLS and the University take this matter seriously and engage in good faith with both my complaints and my recommendations.”

X felt Nicholson’s response was impersonal and lackluster. Nicholson redirected X to Maddy McMaster, Academic Registrar, and Evan Kritikakos, Director Students and Equity, for his complaints about Chapman and Bird and the Counselling and Psychological Services for his mental health concerns. There was a perceived disregard for the list of things that X requested for. The formal complaint against Chapman and Bird was never formally pursued afterwards.

Drop-in Session

As a solution to allay the concerns of X and the Muslim student body at MLS, the faculty decided to hold a lunch-time drop in session on 8 May 2019. According to Bird, the drop in session is an opportunity for the faculty to engage in conversations about issues of concern to Muslim students at MLS.

Details of the sessions were shared on the JD newsletter disseminated through email and the LMS. According to X, out of the 10 Muslim students in Melbourne Law School, only four showed up.

“It was sort of hastily organised, and there wasn’t much clarity on what it was, like what [to] speak about,” said X, “Also, they only organised after this whole thing with the article. My assumption is [they are doing it] to avoid getting in trouble.”

X’s friend said, “While the drop-in session was no doubt overdue, I think it showed that the Dean has a genuine interest in trying to accommodate for Muslim students studying law and who are seeking a career in the legal profession,” and they felt proposals from the Muslim students were well received.

During the session, senior members such as the Dean and associate deans were present for the discussion. However, the faculty members engaging in discussions relating to concerns and experiences of Muslim students doing law were all white and non-Muslim.

When asked for a comment on the choice of panel members, Chapman referred Farrago to Matthew Harding, Deputy Dean of Melbourne Law School.

“The Law School does not believe it benefits staff or students to engage with this matter any further,” said Harding.

Despite low turnout, X viewed the discussion as a productive one. Discussion points included Muslim women who don the hijab feeling the pressure to remove it when applying for jobs, Muslim applicants changing their names to a white-sounding ones, Muslims juris-doctors choosing to avoid private practice as they assume that they will not succeed in the field.

Chapman was present but as per X’s request, she was not to be involved in the discussion. In his view, Chapman has proven to be unknowledgeable on issues of critical race theory and equity.

“My personal view is that she doesn’t really understand anything to do with ethnic diversity as a sort of issue and the understanding even in the meaning of Islam or Muslim identity as beyond—and this is my own view—the sort of secular idea of religion in our society,” said X, “The idea is very much a stand-in for Christianity, for instance. Where, when I’m speaking about issues of how it intersects with race, they quickly move it back to religious discrimination but, as far as i’m concerned, it’s much more complex than that.”

X’s friend said, “My experience in law school as a Muslim has been a weird one. I’m a woman but I don’t wear a hijab and I look white. Despite this I never felt like I belonged in law school, which is strange because I never had that feeling throughout my arts degree. Despite looking and talking like everyone else, I felt out of place culturally and sociopolitically. I think the cultural and social rift I experienced was a huge obstacle in allowing me to engage with this degree to the extent that other people are able to.”

X said that at the end of the session, Nicholson agreed to speak to deans of the Law School and heads of local law firms about the issues raised.

“Her undertaking was sort of that she would talk about it which is a positive step. Hopefully it leads to some sort of change,” said X.

Setting Up a Muslim Student Body

Moving forward, X is looking to form a Muslim student body in Melbourne Law school which he aims to set up by the end of the semester. The group could be a starting point for Muslim students to raise their concerns and be a liason between students and the Law School.

“The fact is, if you’re one person or two people, in a minority, you can’t form a group. You can’t insert yourself into that conversation and be really heard. From my experience, if you do try, you’re just going to get told that your tone is wrong,” he said.

*Name has been changed.

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