Dustup Over Racial Slur Comes at Delicate Time for Young Law School

PROVIDENCE, R.I.
The law school at Roger Williams University
is a relative infant among peers, opened less than 15 years ago and angling
ever since to elevate its national profile and climb the rankings ladder.

Which makes the
recent attention it’s received all the less welcome.

In a whirlwind
week, Ralph R. Papitto, 80, the former chairman of the university board,
admitted using the n-word at a board meeting in May, then volunteered to have
his name taken off the law school — the only one in Rhode Island. The dustup
arrived at a delicate time for the university and especially for the young law
school, which lacks the prestige of top tier institutions but has aggressively
sought skilled students from outside the area and diversity in professors.

While a top 10
school has deep enough roots to shake off a controversy, it’s more challenging
at a place like Roger Williams, which is still introducing itself to the
national law community, said Andrew Horwitz, a professor at the law school
since 1994.

“Obviously, our
concern is that people will simply connect the statements that Mr. Papitto has
made to the name of the law school and reach inappropriate conclusions based on
that connection,” he said.

The Bristol school opened
in 1993 and received national accreditation a few years later. It was named in
1996 for Papitto, a successful businessman and university board member for
nearly 40 years, despite objections from students that he was still alive and
was not a lawyer.

Joel Votolato,
president of the alumni association, said Papitto is widely credited with
coming up with the idea to open a law school in Rhode Island.

“It comes as a
blow when something like this happens,” he said.

The school’s
popularity is still largely regional — half the entering class in 2006 came
from Rhode Island or elsewhere
in New
England, according to school statistics — though it does attract
students from across the country.

Raising a
school’s national reputation takes time, and Roger Williams is no exception.

The law school
ranks in the fourth, or lowest, tier in the U.S. News & World Report
rankings. It also got a dose of bad publicity in 2001 when a newspaper reported
that graduates since 1996 were having problems passing the bar exam.
Supporters say
Roger Williams has made marked inroads since then, using an honors program and
generous financial aid packages to lure top-flight students who might otherwise
select better-ranked schools and retaining professors respected in niche fields
like sentencing policy and domestic violence law. The bar pass rate has
improved, as have standardized test scores.

Law student Kim
Ahern, who helped circulate a petition that was signed by nearly 200 students
and demanded that the school’s name be changed, said she was proud of having
gone to Roger Williams and that the ordeal offered an opportunity for the
school to make positive changes and move on.

“If this had
happened anywhere, it’d be viewed as a setback,” she said.

Still,
professors, alumni and law school board members suggested that Roger Williams
would emerge with its reputation intact and said the public would recognize
that an entire institution can’t be judged by the words of one man.

“One comment by
a board member is just one comment by a board member and nothing more than
that, as inappropriate as it may be,” said Robert Kando, a member of the law
school’s first graduating class and current director of the state Board of
Elections.

Its status as
the state’s only law school means that students have access to clerkships,
opportunities to argue before the state Supreme Court and a leg up at some
local firms.

“It’s a school
that has come a long way in a very short time,” said Ronald Cass, a former Boston University Law School dean who sits
on the Roger Williams law school board.

He said the
success of a law school depends more on “who’s dean, who’s on the faculty,
who’s in the student body’’ than who’s the chairman of the board.

Papitto used
the slur while discussing the difficulty in finding minorities to serve on the board, putting a
spotlight on the number of minorities
on the board and at the school.

At the time
Papitto made the comment in May, there were 14 Wite men on a 16-member board
and no minorities, and the
organization responsible for accrediting the university had raised concern
about the group’s lack of diversity. Since then, the board has said it’s taking
steps to diversify.

The makeup of
the student body is also less diverse than other schools in the region. Eleven
percent of the students at Roger Williams’ law school identified themselves as
members of minority groups as of
last fall, spokesman Brian Clark said. By comparison, 18 percent of students at
Suffolk University Law School are members of
minority groups, and that
number is 27 percent at Northeastern University School of Law, according to
their Web sites.

Papitto eventually
apologized and stepped down — saying he wanted to spend more time with his
family — then asked to have his name removed amid mounting pressure from
students, faculty and minority
lawmakers. The university has agreed to take his name off the law school.

It was a
precipitous fall for a man who had given millions of dollars to a school that
bears his name. But in a statement asking to have his name stripped, he
indicated that the school needed to move on without him.

“I do not want
this controversy, which at present is running out of control, to further the
damage already caused to the university.”

– Associated Press

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