On this week’s edition of In Black America, producer and host John L. Hanson, Jr. speaks with Michael Meyerson, the DLA Piper Professor of Law and Director of the Fannie Angelos Program For Academic Excellence at the University of Baltimore School of Law. The Fannie Angelos Program assists law students from Maryland’s historically Black colleges and universities.
Announcer [00:00:15] From the University of Texas at Austin, KUT Radio, this is In Black America.
Michael Meyerson [00:00:23] I went to historically Black colleges which are by long race neutral. Though in the state of Maryland, overwhelmingly African-American. Not entirely, but overwhelmingly. And we went to the fourth schools and we started recruiting people. And from there, we finally figured out in large ways how to really identify those who were not only academically talented, but kind of personally motivated. And then we spent time with them working to both explain the system and then get them ready for the LSAT, which gets them into law school, the entrance exam. And then we found that’s not enough, because in law school, when you’re going from a predominantly African-American community to a predominantly white institution. There are still lots of obstacles. It’s institutional racism, this individual, and of course, in this, the world of environment and life that people have to sort of deal with.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:01:15] Michael Meyerson, the DLA Piper Professor of Law and Director of the Fannie Angelos Program for Academic Excellence, the University of Baltimore School of Law. The Fannie Angelos Program for Academic Excellence, formally called the Baltimore Scholars Program, has been in its current form for the past seven years. The program represents a revolutionary and comprehensive approach for addressing the lack of diversity in legal education and the legal profession. Meyerson and his team has created in collaboration between the University of Baltimore School of Law and Maryland’s four historically Black colleges and universities. More than 100 students have been accepted into law schools across the country. Students have served on law journals, won national Moot Court competitions graduated at the top of their class and obtain prestigious judicial clerkships and jobs at law firms and public interest organizations. I’m John L. Hanson Jr., and welcome to another edition of In Black America. On this week’s program, the Fannie Angelos Program for Academic Excellence by Professor Michael Meyerson. In Black America.
Michael Meyerson [00:02:28] So one is that you over time you identify certain traits. For example, if you don’t take personal responsibility for your failures, if you always blame others, it’s really hard to self improve. So that sort of thing. Second, if you don’t believe that you should help others, that you can work as a team. The program isn’t right for you because what we’ve learned is that it’s the community that makes people strong. So you have to accept that. And finally, I don’t do the selection process myself. We have not just other faculty members, but we have people from the program who are incredibly protective of both to the program and sort of the the students who come in. And so they have to know because, you know, we don’t bat 1000, one of the things about a program, any program that wants to make change like this is I think you have to recognize that, you know, you’re not going to be perfect. But we’ve gotten better over time. And, you know, basically, you also you always, you know, fight the last war. So if one year you realize that you don’t have a sense of community, then the next year you put extra effort when you interview and talk to people and then you bring them in to work on the basic skills.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:03:39] Law professor Michael Meyerson has devoted his entire life to fighting for the underdog and disenfranchized. Since the mid 1990, he has worked tirelessly to level the playing field for minority law school students, according to the 2017 National Association for Law Placement Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms. Only about 4% of legal associates and fewer than 2% of partners at law firms across the country are African-Americans. In 2013, with a $1 million donation from a Baltimore attorney to the University of Baltimore School of Law, the Baltimore Scholars Program was renamed The Fannie Angelos Program for Academic Excellence. The program provides law school admission test training for students from Maryland’s historically Black colleges and universities, as well as scholarship, mentoring and financial assistance to students admitted to UAB Law School and other law schools. Recently In Black America, I spoke with Professor Meyerson from his home.
Michael Meyerson [00:04:42] So in many ways it was much better because people were much more open because they could sort of have their anonymity guaranteed and protected. So I was able to like, read their private questions out loud and we got a much forward discussion. So I was actually way better. But, you know, it’s easy for a lazy student to hide online. I haven’t had not figured out a way to, uh, to capture that. So that that’s, that’s a work in progress.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:05:06] So when they’re online is a whole class. Yeah. Plugged in to your particular lecture?
Michael Meyerson [00:05:12] Yeah. Yeah, It’s a, it’s through Zoom. But the other trouble is, you know, when you’re in front of a classroom, you can gaze and watch everyone when you’re doing it on Zoom. I’m not going to watch 60. You know, and I, I, you know, and then they say, Oh, I can’t use my screen. I have to use my phone. And, you know, and of course, some of my students are, you know, you know, are absolutely true, you know, and they may not have good wifi, but but the trouble is online lets slackers be slackers. And I just, you know, you know, I like to be a hard ass and I just can’t capture them yet. But, you know, I like to think I’ll get better at that. I was born in New York City, in the Bronx, and ended up moving down, getting a job in Baltimore and living around here now.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:05:52] What was it like, like growing up in New York?
Michael Meyerson [00:05:55] Well, it’s it’s it’s it’s fascinating in ways because you do meet lots of different people, even, you know, almost without helping it because it’s such a crowded place. But reality is also with it can still be somewhat segregated based on income and and where you live. And so you see people, but you don’t get to know them. So you have an illusion when you’re a New Yorker that you’re really in a diverse city. But I think in reality, most of us were not.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:06:21] And you did your undergraduate work where?.
Michael Meyerson [00:06:24] I started at, uh, Middlebury College in Vermont, and ended up graduating from a place called Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, which is known for having no exams and no grades.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:06:35] And your law degree is from where?
Michael Meyerson [00:06:37] University of Pennsylvania School of Law.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:06:40] What excited you to go into law?
Michael Meyerson [00:06:42] Oh, being sort of a baby boomer, the lawyers seemed to be the heroes of the of the movement, the civil rights movement. They seemed to be the ones who were changing society. And so also lacking any any any particular skill in my life, I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t do much athletically. Law seems to be the best way I could do things.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:07:06] I also understand that you work for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Michael Meyerson [00:07:10] In fact, that was probably the best part of my legal education. I spent six months working full time at the national ACLU office, and I met these extraordinary lawyers who were doing extraordinary things. And they also just taught me to be a lawyer. So I always think the quality of my lawyering was very much based on the luck of having six months working there.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:07:33] I also read somewhere that you said the Bible greatly influenced you. How so?
Michael Meyerson [00:07:38] Well, in the sense of it’s a oh, it’s sort of like a mandate. I’m Jewish and I’m told that, you know, remember, you were a stranger in a strange land, and that always seemed to be the moral command. And it you know, it transcends religion. But in that sense, it just seemed to be every time you felt settled, you had a responsibility to help those who were not.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:08:00] Also, I understand that you joined the faculty there in 1985.
Michael Meyerson [00:08:05] Yes. I’m old as dirt.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:08:08] And any prior positions before you went to the University of Baltimore?
Michael Meyerson [00:08:11] I done sort of like, uh, teaching elsewhere for a few years at Brooklyn Law School. I had done a little work in a sort of a political office, in the governor’s office in New York State, doing consumer protection.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:08:22] I also understand that through your tenure, you said that a law professor gave you some good advice, that the legal profession affects the lives of ordinary people.
Michael Meyerson [00:08:33] Oh, it really does. And I was told early on that as a teacher, my responsibility was not so much to my students, but to their future clients. And I didn’t really have the right to affect their politics, but I had an obligation to affect their ability to be professionals and respectful. And then I had also the opportunity as an academic to find ways to make the world better, or at least how I saw the world being better.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:09:01] Talk to us about the Fannie Angelos Program for Academic Excellence.
Michael Meyerson [00:09:05] It sort of began as a reaction. I was asked with a colleague to to sort of review the law school’s affirmative action program after they were started being challenged in the 1990s. And our program, you know, met constitutional muster. But like so many affirmative action programs, it did very little. And I had been sort of pondering since law school how to do this thing right, how to do, I guess, what we now call pipelines, but how to do something that really, you know, discovered talented people and gave them a chance they would not otherwise have. So, Sunny, in the mid 1990s, I and a colleague sort of created this program. But I’ll be honest, it took about 15 years to do it right. I thought originally all you have to do is sort of open a door and then life is fine. What I learned over the years was how much it took to level the playing field, because the motto of the program is that we’re not a diversity program. We’re a talent search. Because if you find talent and level the playing field, diversity happens. So what we found is the other thing to be constitutional at the state University, we had to be race neutral. And so we went to historically Black colleges, which are by long race neutral, though in the state of Maryland, overwhelmingly African-American, not entirely, but overwhelmingly. And we went to the four schools and we started recruiting people. And from there, we finally figured out in large ways how to really identify those who were not only academically talented but kind of personally motivated. And then we spent time with them working to both explain the system and then get them ready for the LSAT, which gets them into law school, the entrance exam. And then we found that’s not enough cause in law school, when you’re going from a predominantly African-American community to a predominantly white institution, there are still lots of obstacles. There’s institutional racism, there’s individual. And of course, then there’s the world of environment and life that people have to sort of deal with. And then we learned after they graduate, that’s not enough, because they’re going from a predominantly white institution to an overwhelmingly white profession. And if you look at the numbers of African-Americans who were like in law firms and partners, it is it’s it’s virtually Jim Crow level. And so we created we now have a system where we’re sort of working to support and mentor, you know, people throughout the process.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:11:36] What was the HBCU president, his immediate reaction when you all told him that you wanted to develop this program?
Michael Meyerson [00:11:46] Well, on one level, it was sort of like, you know, go have at it. I think that part of the problem with institutions is that they’re nervous about sharing. And I think, you know, rightfully so, a lot of the CEOs are not very trusting, you know, don’t have a lot of instant trust in a predominantly white law school. I think over the years, we’ve proven the most important thing. And this is, by the way, there’s sort of a two side note, but it’s it’s I think it’s relevant. To me, the biggest problem with affirmative action programs is how many of them are built on disrespect. Will lower standards will overlook this. We don’t really expect quality if people don’t do well with. Well, of course. What do you expect? And that’s always I mean, it’s a lie, but I think it’s a real poison. So the program we run is all based on the absolute confidence that the students we are finding are either as good or in most cases better than the students will be competing with at the law school and in the profession at large. And the institutions we’re working with, we treat with respect because what they are accomplishing is so extraordinary. And over time, when you treat people with respect, they begin to believe it, that you actually do respect them. And so that’s become a whole lot better.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:12:58] I know this is extract type of collusion, but how do you all decide which students that you all select with you all help? These individuals can actually make it.
Michael Meyerson [00:13:12] That’s a that, by the way, first of all, it’s an art, not a science. And I, I don’t swear we’re that good at it or I’m not good at it. So one of the things I’ve learned is program like. Like what? Like mine. You learn humility early and often. So one is that you you over time you identify certain traits. For example, if you don’t take personal responsibility for your failures, if you always blame others, it’s really hard to self improve. So that sort of thing. Second, if you don’t believe that you should help others, that you can work as a team. The program isn’t right for you because what we’ve learned is that it’s the community that makes people strong. So you have to accept that. And finally, I don’t do the selection process myself. We have not just other faculty members, but we have people from the program who are incredibly protective of the program and and sort of the the students who come in. And so they have to know because, you know, we don’t by 2000, one of the things about a program, any program that wants to make change like this is I think you have to recognize that, you know, you’re not going to be perfect. But we’ve gotten better over time. And, you know, basically, you also you always, you know, fight the last war. So if one year you realize that you don’t have a sense of community, then the next year you put extra effort when you interview and talk to people and then you bring them in to work on the basic skills, you know, again, and this years, I mean, we have a really good group, so I’m feeling better, but it’s still it’s still personalities.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:14:43] Is there any certain number of students that you all matriculate through this program every year?
Michael Meyerson [00:14:48] Well, it’s an interesting point, because the other thing it because there are so few programs that are predominantly white law schools reaching down to collaborate with historically Black colleges and do it in such a holistic way. I mean, there are a lot of programs like help people with the with the LCT. But the idea of working with them from sort of the beginning and throughout in a very tense and personal way is unusual.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:15:13] How important is it that these students buy into you all’s formula in preparation for the outset?
Michael Meyerson [00:15:22] It’s extraordinarily important and because first of all, the LCT is a one of a kind exam. In many ways it’s extraordinarily culturally biased. I mean, part of it is like mass games, and if you haven’t done these logic games, you’re clueless. Stunning how many students don’t have any background and sort of just taking standardized tests at all. In fact, one of the things in the program is that the for HBCUs, not one of them had a test prep prep program. The wealthier colleges in Maryland, University of Maryland, had, you know, paid for students to take these courses. And I’m going to these historically Black colleges are not one of them is offering a prep course. So, you know, you just sort of start out having to explain to people we have a new motto, which is that new problems require new tools. And so they if they don’t accept that, if they’re not willing to learn new tools, if they don’t, then then I don’t see how people can do it. And here’s the other thing. What we’ve discovered is even if they are lucky enough to get a decent score in the LCT, if they’re not willing to learn from others, they’re doomed to fail. I mean, because no one’s that smart. And eventually you’re going to need to learn from those who are, you know, who want to help you, who want who have been there before. And it’s the other thing is, especially if you’re an African American entering a white law profession, you need mentors. It’s a hostile world out there. And you might as well learn from those who have fought the battles. I mean, you know, I mean, the beginning of wisdom is letting you learn from other people’s mistakes.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:17:01] How do you condense this particular program? I guess Let me let me let me back up. When you all finally select a particular candidate and what year of college is that individual in?
Michael Meyerson [00:17:14] It’s usually juniors or seniors. And what we do is we have to two different paths for them. We take eight and we call them scholars and we bring them onto campus for. Two weeks. They attend classes, they meet judges, they meet lawyers, they meet politicians, and they just get acclimated. One of the things we do in this program is expand people’s imaginations. One of my colleagues told me to think of it this way You know, if you don’t have lawyers in your family and you’re African American, the only lawyers you see on television are going to be that who are not a Black are going to be, you know, in criminal law, either prosecutors or defense attorneys. But someone has to open your eyes to the fact that maybe that’s not your future. Maybe you should be doing mergers and acquisitions or planned law or immigration law or any government contracts. It’s a world out there. So we introduce them to all these different kinds of lawyers. Also have them sit in a law school in a predominantly white institution and prove to them they belong, and then we send them back to campus and we have them take an LSA t course. Now we have enough room in our program for people who aren’t the so-called scholars. Now, the eight scholars get a special bonus because they get free law school tuition if they clear, you know, a certain score, 150 to 1 on the LCT. But everyone in the program, we’ll get some scholarship if they do well on the LCT and right now they’re getting ready for the June LSAT. So in fact, I’m just meeting with them this week and I’m talking with them. And here’s something interesting. Because of the pandemic they’re doing away with the in-person written exam. And so everyone’s taking what’s called LSAT, flex and online. But you know what? If your house doesn’t have good wi fi, if you’ve got six people living in a house and you can’t get any quiet, how are you going to take this to our test? When how are you going to compete with other people? So I agreed to convince the law school to open up its rooms so they can take the exam in mid-June under, you know, ideal or much better test conditions. So, I mean, there’s a lot that goes into leveling the playing field. A lot goes in. They have to they have to meet us halfway, but then we have to do the rest.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:19:35] When you select an individual, how important is for a family parents to buy into this program with their child?
Michael Meyerson [00:19:44] That’s a really complicated question because one of the things we talk to our students about, well, okay, what what what are the things that make it hard for these incredibly smart people to succeed? And one of the problems is what I call toxic voices, the voice in the back of your head that tells you you are not good and you don’t belong. Now, a lot of these, you know, students, you just you know, it’s the it’s society, it’s the media telling you that if you’re not from a if you’re from in a neighborhood that you know, doesn’t have a whole lot of people making a whole lot of money, the city’s telling you you’re not as good. Often it’s their so-called friends who are telling them, Who do you think you are? You know, In other words, these people who want to achieve, want to strive, want or want to want to just, you know, beat the odds. You know, their friends who may not have as much courage, may not have as much, you know, intellectual gifts will often attack them. And sadly, sometimes it’s within their families where their families are just just don’t understand what these, in my opinion, what their children are capable of. Now, many other families are so proud and so supportive, but ironically, even they put pressure on their children because they almost can’t imagine their children failing as. And so they put the pressure on. Well, you got to be perfect. So it’s wonderful to have family support and those who do. I just think, like anyone else in the world, have a better shot at success because you have more support and more more sort of room to like for trial and error. But the reality is, as they say in baseball, you got hit the ball where it’s pitched. So a supportive family is wonderful. But the reality is, if you don’t have a supportive family, we’re not giving up on you. We just we. And I’ll tell you, we have learned over the years when we have to step in and say, even though, you know, this person tells you you are not good, we know you are.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:21:39] Obviously, since 1995, there has to have been other individuals to buy into your vision. How do you convince them to do so?
Michael Meyerson [00:21:49] You mean other institutions to do the kind of program?
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:21:52] You mean the institutions in other professions?
Michael Meyerson [00:21:54] Well, here’s the problem. Here’s the problem. People love the program until they find out how much work it is. It’s it is it is so labor intensive. So I my students text me every Monday. I am now meeting with them in two groups, twice a week, twice a week with Zoom meetings. In other words, it’s not it’s not a lazy person’s game. I mean, if you want a level playing field, it’s almost like, you know, you just like like, like shoveling on a on on on a on a snowy day. I mean, you’re just working all the time. Now, to me, it’s. It’s all I’m so glad I have the opportunity to. But, I mean, you got to really commit. It is incredibly labor intensive to do it right. Because the number of obstacles that step in and the number of of of just fears people have is extraordinary. So I think I think people want to do it on the cheap. I think they want to do it in a you know, in a lazy way. And I think they want to do it without institutional commitment. My dream is to have everyone do it, every institution, every predominantly white institution, do a program like this and not just do law. You could do it in nursing. You could do it in engineering. Maybe I’m just not I’m not nearly as good a salesperson as I as I like to think I am. But we have not seen many people say, hey, let’s do exactly. Once they find out what we do, we tend to not get a return phone call. Are there.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:23:17] Any particular law schools that work well with you all, or are the students able to select and submit their application to schools that they prefer to go.
Michael Meyerson [00:23:28] To? Oh, absolutely. We it’s one of the things that I did very early on which my deans don’t always like, but I just sort of insisted on it, is that the program has to be based on fulfilling students dreams. It has to be about them. It can’t be about me or or my school. So they do not have any. They can go to any law school they want and they’ve gone to places like Georgetown, Howard, Columbia, USC, Minnesota. I mean, we’ve had a nice mix, but one of the things is they know they succeeded with us. And by the time they finish the law school application process, they know, you know, a quarter of the faculty. So they walk into our law school. If they go here, like like they’re like like they’re seniors, not freshmen. And I think that so as we’ve gotten better in the program, more and more of our students who had choices have chosen to come to Baltimore law school, but they certainly don’t have to again, because I think, you know, these sort of programs, if they’re going to work, are all about letting other people live their dreams.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:24:28] How has word of mouth from former student assisted you are recruiting new students?
Michael Meyerson [00:24:35] Well, incredibly so. And, you know, part of it is, you know, smart people hang out with smart people. And but secondly, you know, the fraternities and sororities at the HBCU are incredibly tight, you know, And so when people, you know, start spreading the word from one generation to the next, as it were, it becomes powerful. But, you know, also we’ve been around long enough so that our students from the program who are like worked with judges, the judges want to hire other people and law firms want to I mean, you know, of course, you know, I don’t know if you know, it’s sort of, you know, one of the sad realities of American life is that when things get racialized, the presumption is that if it’s African-American based, it can’t be very good. And that’s one of the goals of the program, was to, you know, put, you know, show the lie to that. And so the more people hear, that’s why even the word excellence is sort of part of everything we talk about is we’re not talking about average. We’re talking about way better than average. And that’s people sort of see the program like that, both the students and the employers. And in fact, my colleagues on the faculty, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:25:40] You talk about the program, Is labor intense? But I’m also understand that it costs money. Yet how are you are funding this project?
Michael Meyerson [00:25:50] Okay. So we got a grant of seed money, you know, to sort of pay for like outside the one administrative assistant who runs things. The law school itself has been very generous with money because they’ve paid for scholarships. And, you know, at a time of a shrinking scholarship budget, they have stayed committed. So, you know, again, it takes you know, it’s the more support you get, the better. And the law school itself has been very supportive financially about that. Now, if someone like me, I do it for I mean, it’s you know, I, I have a job. I’m a law professor. I’m tenured. So, you know, this is just you know, this is like the best part of my life. And so, you know, the faculty who work and volunteer get, you know, do it, do it just, you know, just out of love.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:26:35] One final question. At the end of the day, when do you know you’ve had a good day? That’s part one and part two of that question at the end of the semester, when do you know you’ve had a good semester?
Michael Meyerson [00:26:47] Uh, it might be the same. It’s when you see a student suddenly believe in themselves and you see them accomplish something they can’t they couldn’t have imagined doing. We just had eight students graduate from law school this this week, and we did a little zoom ceremony. And I think an answer to your question, you looked at their parents on the little camera, hugging their kids, crying. You looked at the children, thanking their parents, and you think, my goodness, this is you know, this is what this is what we’re supposed to be. So every moment you have a chance to give someone a step more towards their dream, my goodness. Or what? But how could you have a better day than that?
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:27:26] Any final comment, Mr. Morrison?
Michael Meyerson [00:27:28] Yeah. If you any of your listeners want to duplicate the program or want to tell me how I can do it better, please contact me. We’re a work in progress.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:27:36] Michael Morrison to DLA Piper, Professor of Law and Director of the Fannie Angelos Program for Academic Excellence, the University of Baltimore School of Law. If you have questions, comments or suggestions as to a future in Black America programs, email us at In Black America at kut.org. Also, let us know what radio station you heard us over. Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast and follow us on Facebook. You can hear previous programs online at kut.org. The views and opinions expressed on this program are not necessarily those of the station or of the University of Texas at Austin. Until we have the opportunity again for technical producer David Alvarez, I’m John L. Hanson Jr. Thank you for joining us today. Please join us again next week.
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