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Why Did the Dean of the Most Diverse Law School in the Country Cancel Herself?

Without tenure, administrative work in a university is an especially oppressive time suck, robbing an academic of the hours that could be spent on research and writing and conference-going — essentially, what is required for tenure. Ms. Bilek was not alone in the belief that a certain status was necessary to perform the job. The previous academic dean, Ann Cammett, a Black professor who had tenure when she served in the role, also felt that it was too hard to preside over those with authority if you didn’t have it yourself.

“The person has to engage in high-order negotiations with the faculty and has to have a position of gravitas,” Ms. Cammett said. Beyond that, the risk of alienating people who someday might weigh in on your own tenure case remained high.

Ms. Bilek offered a reasonable solution: to advance Professor Robbins’s early tenure and also fast-track a group of professors of color. Ms. Cammett assembled a list of names. But as one committee member explained it, the CUNY system, now operating in a time of staff cuts and budget challenges, was unlikely to disperse so many papal gifts at once. So the committee suggested a counterproposal, a graduated process in which several people, including Professor Robbins (who described herself to me as “a proud, queer, gender-nonconforming Jew”), could pursue early tenure but just not all at once. That plan did not move forward either. In the end, no one was pushed ahead.

As the fall progressed, anger continued to foment around Ms. Bilek. The day after Christmas, 22 faculty members wrote a letter denouncing her wish to leapfrog a white junior academic in the promotion process, her “slaveholder” reference, and what they viewed as her resistance to listen to faculty members of color on the personnel committee “as they pointed out the disparate racial impacts” of her conduct. She had presented herself and the institution as “anti-racist,” they wrote, while ignoring how her own decisions perpetuated “institutional racism.”

Next came a list of demands that included a public apology for her misdeeds, changes to practices in governance and a retreat from any outside roles furthering the perception that she was “an anti-racist dean.” Those who signed gave her a deadline of Jan. 19 to address their concerns. When that day arrived, Ms. Bilek instead sent a short email to the faculty, announcing that she was going to retire on June 30.

Her impending exit was not met with a joyous celebration of Zoom margaritas. Instead it was received as an abdication of her responsibilities. “We intentionally chose not to ask her to step down but to demand instead that she commit to the systemic work that her stated anti-racist principles required,” Ramzi Kassem, a prominent scholar of national security issues who serves on the personnel committee, told me. “Dean Bilek chose to ignore that outstretched hand.”

Another member of the committee, a popular professor named Carmen Huertas-Noble, also maintained that there was a way for Ms. Bilek to chart a new path. “We said, ‘We don’t want to make a scene — no single action should define any of us. We don’t want to take away from all the work you’ve done at the law school, but we want the accountability,’” she told me.

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