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Yale Law Dean Admits Error, Stops Short of Apologizing to Targeted Students

Under fire, Dean Heather Gerken issues muted mea culpa

Yale Law dean Heather Gerken / Yale Law School, photo by Harold Shapiro
• November 17, 2021 7:53 pm

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The dean of Yale Law School expressed "regret" Wednesday for her administration's role in the now-infamous "trap house" incident but stopped short of apologizing to second-year law student Trent Colbert or the Federalist Society for their treatment at the hands of university administrators.

In a law school-wide email, Dean Heather Gerken took "full responsibility" for the "things the Law School administration should have done differently."

"No student or student group should ever have reason to believe that administrators are acting in a biased or unfair manner, and I deeply regret that this impression was given in this instance," Gerken wrote, referring to the administration's public denunciation of an email invitation Colbert sent in September and its alleged suggestions to Federalist Society president Zack Austin that he and his group put Colbert up to the task.

Gerken's email, which summarized the findings of an investigation by Deputy Dean Ian Ayres, did not mention Colbert by name and attributed the incident to poor communication.

"I have spent every year of my deanship trying to foster an inclusive community and create an environment where students feel called into the community rather than called out," Gerken said. "The email message from administrators to members of the 2L class"—in which Associate Dean Ellen Cosgrove and Diversity Director Yaseen Eldik condemned Colbert's "racist" message "in the strongest possible terms"—"did not strike the appropriate balance between those two goals."

Still, Gerken said, Eldik and Cosgrove were merely "attempting to carry out their obligations under University policy whenever discrimination complaints are filed."

Gerken's email came less than 24 hours after the legal commentator David Lat reported that Gerken's renewal as dean had been postponed several weeks in the wake of an unrelated lawsuit filed on Monday against Gerken, Cosgrove, and Eldik. According to the lawsuit, Gerken and Cosgrove retaliated against two students for refusing to make false statements about Amy Chua, whom Gerken in April removed from a teaching post after the Yale Law professor allegedly violated an agreement not to host students in her home.

The source of the current controversy stems from a September email invitation Colbert sent to classmates that invited them to his "trap house." After fielding complaints that the email was offensive, Cosgrove and Eldik suggested to Colbert he could face trouble with the bar if he didn't send a pre-drafted apology for his invitation. They also informed him that his membership in the "oppressive" Federalist Society had "triggered" his peers.

Their actions have been the subject of vociferous criticism, including from members of the law school's faculty. Yale Law professor Akhil Amar, one of the school's most distinguished scholars, last week called on the school to apologize for its "deplorable" conduct.

Gerken also announced that she had set up a committee to "think about how to maintain our cherished intellectual environment." That committee, she said, "will address steps we can take as a community to create an environment in which people can disagree as well as our norms surrounding secretly recorded conversations and the sharing of private correspondence without permission."

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