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The Mess at Widener Law School

Linda Ammons and Lawrence Connell.jpgConsider the disturbing case of Lawrence Connell, a criminal-law professor at Widener University’s law school who was suspended for a year without pay on Aug. 8 despite having been cleared of allegations of sexual and racial harassment in his classroom lodged by two female black students. The case can be best understood as a story of two clashing law-school cultures, the first represented by Connell himself and the second by Widener Law’s dean, Linda Ammons, who has pushed relentlessly since last fall to get Connell off of the campus. We can call the two cultures Old Law School and New Law School.

The Old Law School/New Law School distinction helps explain why Connell was meted harsh punishment despite his vindication on the underlying charges (Widener says that Connell might have been innocent, but he wrongfully “retaliated” against the complaining students by suing them–along Widener itself and some of its administrators–and by publicizing the charges against him in an e-mail to his other students). The Old Law School/New Law School distinction also helps explain another, truly ominous aspect of Connell’s punishment, also pushed by Ammons: As a condition of reinstatement, he must undergo a psychiatric evaluation and a course of treatment (including “anger management”). The psychiatrist or psychologist is supposed to report to Widener on the treatment’s progress and must certify that Connell is sufficiently cured in order for him to be allowed to return to his classroom. If that seems reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s treatment of dissidents as mentally ill, or of the reeducation camps of Maoist China, the Old Law School/New Law School distinction again comes into play.

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