PUBLISHED:March 22, 2021

Survey of students shows broad satisfaction, concerns about diversity, inclusiveness


The survey, which was conducted by the Law School’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, canvassed students on diversity broadly.

A recent survey showed that the majority of Duke Law students are satisfied with their education and feel comfortable at the Law School but also revealed dissatisfaction with the level of diversity and the climate for Black and other underrepresented students.

The survey, which was conducted by the Law School’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, canvassed students on diversity broadly, including race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, ideological viewpoint, socioeconomic status, veteran status, and ability status. The committee had planned to administer the survey in early 2020, but the pandemic postponed its distribution to students until September.

The survey is part of the Law School’s Strategic Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which was developed last summer following the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd and other Black men and women and a charge from Duke University President Vincent Price to “take transformative action now toward eliminating the systems of racism and inequality that have shaped the lived experiences of too many members of the Duke community.” The plan calls for the collection and analysis of quanititative and qualititative data “to understand the current state of our diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

“The purpose of the climate survey was to try to understand how our students are experiencing the institution and to what extent do we have differential experiences among our students, particularly for underrepresented groups,” said Guy-Uriel Charles, Edward and Ellen Schwarzman Professor of Law and co-chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee. “In the context of broader racial reckoning, we wanted to get the pulse of the student body.”

The Diversity & Inclusion Committee was formed by Dean Kerry Abrams in the fall of 2019. Jabrina Robinson, director of LLM career development, serves as co-chair; the committee also includes faculty, staff, student, and alumni members.

One of the initial charges of this committee was an assessment of the Law School’s current diversity and inclusion climate and how it could be improved. A total of 428 students completed the web-based survey, including students from the JD, LLM, and SJD programs.

The survey found high levels of satisfaction overall. Asked how satisfied they were with their Duke Law education, 89.4% responded “satisfied” or “very satisfied.” Only 3.7% said they were "dissatisfied," with 6.9% responding “neutral.”

Respondents also reported high levels of comfort in the Duke Law community. Asked how comfortable they felt at the Law School, 77.3% responded “comfortable” or “very comfortable.” Only 5.9% said they felt "uncomfortable" or "very uncomfortable," with 16.7% responding “neutral.”

The survey found lower levels of satisfaction and comfort when the survey asked specifically about diversity. Asked how satisfied they were with the overall level of diversity in their classes, 29% responded “dissatisfied.”

Racial and ethnic diversity was one of the primary concerns for respondents, with 35.7% reporting dissatisfaction with the racial and ethnic diversity of students, 32.8% with the racial and ethnic diversity of faculty, and 17.4% with the racial and ethnic diversity of the administration and staff.

Responses also showed significant disagreement that the Law School is an institution that values racial and ethnic diversity or that the classroom environment is welcoming to students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. More than 22% of respondents said they felt they had been treated differently because of their racial or ethnic identity, and more than 15% said they believed Black and African-American students are “poorly regarded” or “very poorly regarded” at the Law School.

“There is definitely a different experience between white students and Black students at the Law School,” said Bella Walker ’22, one of three students who serve on the Diversity & Inclusion Committee. “Students of color are having a much more negative experience in the Law School than white students are.”

Nearly 20% of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the level of viewpoint diversity among students. Asked if the Law School as an institution values diversity on the basis of political ideology, 18.8% disagreed or strongly disagreed, while 28.4% disagreed or strongly disagreed that the classroom environment was not welcoming for students of different political views and 30.7% said that conservatives and Republicans were “poorly regarded” or “very poorly regarded” at the Law School.

Respondents also highlighted specific challenges for non-binary and gender non-conforming students, non-native English speakers, students with disabilities, and students of modest means.

“I think that this survey gave students the opportunity to have a voice and be able to share their frustrations and their concerns, but ultimately, I think they shared so that the Law School can be better,” said Ebony Bryant, director of diversity initiatives and a member of the committee. “Being able to hear from students, and in a real honest way, is only going to help us to make the Law School community better for everyone.”

Notably, the survey did not reveal significant differences in the satisfaction of female students. Nearly 92% of respondents agreed that the Law School “as an institution values diversity and inclusion with regard to sex.” After lagging behind men in the makeup of the student body, women have comprised more than half of the entering JD class for three straight years.

Charles said the survey overall showed that the Law School needed to “ensure that students of color, particularly Black students, feel a sense of ownership and do not feel alienated from the institution” and that all students, regardless of their political beliefs, “feel invested in and connected to the place.”

“Our job is to provide the best legal education for our students and if there's something that is in the way and it is within our power to address, or if we're putting something in the way, then we want to know about it,” he said. “And, quite frankly, if we're doing some things well, we want to know about it as well, because we want to try to replicate it for everybody.”

In addition to analyzing the results of the survey, the Diversity & Inclusion Committee is using the survey results to inform its work. The committee has established four working groups to guide its efforts: Student, Faculty, and Staff Data-Gathering; Student Discrimination and Alienation Support Systems; Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Values Communication Plan; and Assessment and Advisory of Law School DEI Initiatives.

“We used the data from the student survey to better understand the primary climate concerns of our students,” said Robinson. “One of the things we identified was these underlying challenges with students feeling connected to the school, particularly certain diverse student populations. So we have been looking at ways to reinforce Duke’s values around diversity and inclusion that can reduce alienation and this lack of connectedness to the school.”

The survey is one of a number of initiatives the Law School has pursued during the 2020-21 academic year in an effort to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. Duke University conducted a faculty climate survey in fall 2020 and the committee plans to administer a climate survey for staff in spring 2021. The Law School will assess the results of these surveys alongside the student survey to obtain a holistic view of the climate and an understanding of the unique concerns and needs of staff and faculty.

Faculty and staff have also participated in trainings designed to help them better promote values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in teaching, research, and student support, including a Groundwater Training program for faculty and staff facilitated by the Racial Equity Institute; trainings for faculty and staff facilitated by Bryant and Wickliffe Shreve, faculty and scholarly services librarian; a seminar for faculty with Dr. Arin Reeves, a leading researcher, author, and advisor in the fields of leadership and inclusion; “Dismantling Racism at Duke,” a university-wide course for faculty promoting anti-racism and equity in research, mentoring, and learning environments; a discussion for staff on racial injustice, white privilege, and supporting the African American community with Dr. Robert Crouch, director for diversity and inclusion from Duke’s Office for Institutional Equity; and special events during student orientation with John Simpkins '99, a constitutional law scholar and practicing attorney focused on advancing an equity agenda for women and people of color in the South.

Faculty also organized a Race and the Law Speakers Series course that was open to all students during the spring semester. And the Dean’s Office has sponsored Race and the 1L Curriculum, a year-long series of events for the entire community that are examining race in the context of the first-year curriculum.

“The events of 2020 cast an even brighter light on the fact that different people can experience the same situation in very different ways,” said Linton Mann III, a 2007 graduate of the Law School who serves on the committee. “We can enjoy success in terms of recruiting more individuals from underrepresented backgrounds, but we have more work to do to make sure that those students feel fully included in the fabric of the Law School.

“I’m heartened by the dean’s commitment to this process and giving free rein to the committee to think outside the box and to be thoughtful and to make sure that we’re bringing to her and the faculty and the students anything that we think can help move this ball forward.”

The full results of the student climate survey can be viewed on Duke Law’s website.