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When University of Michigan Law student Courtney Liss first sat down in the Robert B. Aikens Commons for orientation, she said she listened eagerly as Law School Dean Mark West, professor of Japanese law, was introduced to the incoming class.
As West formally welcomed Liss and her peers to one of the most prestigious law programs in the country, out of curiosity, Liss pulled out her phone and looked up West’s published academic works. Liss, who identifies as mixed Vietnamese, said she was shocked to see the covers of his books portraying sexually suggestive representations of Asian women.
“I personally have been haunted by these book covers and this very visible example of racism since I came to the University of Michigan Law,” Liss said. “Literally, sitting in orientation, I remember pulling up his work and looking at them and being like, ‘What? How did I end up here?’”
Asian women have long been fetishized and hyper-sexualized in Western culture. The sexualization of Asian American women — and the anti-Asian racism inherent in these stereotypes — gained national attention last week when eight people, including four women of Korean descent and two of Chinese descent, were killed in mass shootings at Asian-owned massage parlors in the Atlanta area.
Now in her third year at the University, Liss said she has privately contacted Law School administrators throughout her three years about the covers while publicly advocating for West to take responsibility for them. So when West released an email statement March 17 on behalf of the Law School condemning the Atlanta shooting, Liss decided to tweet about West’s book covers.
Liss’s tweets led to pushback against West throughout the Michigan Law community. Three days after her tweet, West issued a formal apology for the book covers in an email sent out to the Michigan Law community and obtained by The Daily.
“(The book covers) reinforces a view of women founded on damaging stereotypes,” West wrote in his March 20 apology. “And while contributing to a harmful narrative was not my intent or understanding at the time, I understand it now, and I understand that my intent does not excuse or lessen the harm.”
When contacted for comment on West’s apology, University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen sent The Daily University President Mark Schissel’s March 17 statement in response to the spa shootings as well a statement from Rob Sellers, chief diversity officer and vice provost for equity and inclusion.
In his March 20 apology, West acknowledged that his work hurt members of the University community. West announced the publisher of one of his books, “Secrets, Sex, and Spectacle,” has removed the cover photograph from their website as of March 20. West said he is actively working with his publishers to amend the other covers as well.
In an email to The Daily, West said academic publishers rarely make these sorts of changes to previously published work on account of author requests.
“I had many conversations regarding deletion of existing artwork and replacement with new artwork,” West wrote. “I am pleased to share that two publishers have responded by changing the covers.”
In December 2020, West was named the inaugural David A. Breach Dean of Law after a $5 million gift from the Breach family established the position. Pending the Board of Regents’ approval, West intends to work for the remainder of his deanship to support new racial justice initiatives at the Law School.
In his apology email, West said as “one in a position of leadership,” he regrets not considering the harmful effects the cover images might have on Asian American communities. West admitted that he was questioned by students about the juxtaposition between his public denunciation of the Atlanta attacks and his book covers in the days between his two statements.
Liss said she emailed West on June 6, 2020 for a variety of reasons, including the book covers.
“Over the last two years, I have mentioned that these book covers make me uncomfortable to (the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association), to (several law deans), to many professors, both tenured and non-tenured,” Liss wrote to West in her email, a copy of which was shared with The Daily. “Many of them knew and looked at me awkwardly and guiltily … many of them didn’t know and expressed honest shock.”
After Liss’s June email, West arranged a Zoom meeting with Liss and two other Deans on June 10. At the meeting, Liss said when she challenged West about the book covers, he conceded that the photographic cover of “Secrets, Sex, and Spectacle” could be considered offensive and personally apoligized to her. Liss said West defended the other contested covers and said they were reprints of famous Japanese art. West did not specifically comment on Liss’s description of the June 10 meeting when asked by The Daily.
On Sept. 28, Liss followed up with West in an email about the meeting — West confirmed to The Daily that he received this email. Liss said West responded saying he was working on changing the cover of “Secrets, Sex, and Spectacle”.
“So he privately apologized to me, and then I followed up like four months later and said, ‘Have you done anything about this?” Liss said.“(West) said he was trying to get the book cover changed on his first book… but that I should keep that private.”
In an email to The Daily, West confirmed he had updated Liss about his attempt to change the cover of “Secrets, Sex, and Spectacle” after Liss’s Sept. 28 follow-up. West wrote he asked Liss to keep this information private for the time because the cover change was at the beginning of what would likely be a long process.
“I requested that she keep the information confidential because the publisher had been slow to act and the cover art had not yet been changed, and therefore a public announcement was premature,” West wrote.
Liss said she was somewhat hesitant to continue following up with West about the book covers after that, fearing her continued activism would hurt her academic accomplishments or affect recommendation letters and job prospects. However, on March 17, in light of the Atlanta attacks, Liss said she felt the need to send one final email to West and the other Law School deans asking them to address the book covers as well as anti-Asian racism on campus and nationwide.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Why do you care about book covers right now when there’s this violence?’” Liss said. “I care because it says what kind of work we want to elevate and highlight, what kind of scholarship we think is valuable and who can be (negatively affected) by that scholarship.”
When West’s original March 17 email statement condemning the Atlanta attacks did not allude to the book covers, countless law school organizations — Women’s Law Student Association, the Michigan chapter of If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice, National Security Law Society and Gender Violence Project— used the “Lawopen” listserv to send statements to the entire law community specifically criticizing West’s book covers and calling on him to publicly apologize for them.
“In contrast to his message (on March 17), Dean West has chosen to present his scholarship with covers that perpetuate these stereotypes of Asian women: Drunk Japan, Lovesick Japan, and Secrets, Sex, and Spectacle,” NSLS wrote in a statement, a copy of which was forwarded to The Daily. “It is well documented that this kind of hypersexualization of Asian women contributes to the discrimination and violence that Asian women face. NSLS calls on Dean West to address how his choice of images in promoting his scholarship contributes to the racism he condemns.”
In his email to the Daily, West affirmed his commitment to improving the academic and social experience for all students through reflection and reforms at the institutional level.
“For the last year, the Law School’s leadership team and I have increased our focus on issues of inclusivity, social justice, and becoming an anti-racist institution,” West wrote to The Daily. “I am especially grateful to our community for their support and I am pleased with the progress we are making, but there is also much work left to be done.”
When Liss first received West’s public email saying “I am sorry,” Liss said she was glad to see the apology and the tangible action being taken to amend the covers in her last term at the University, three years after she first brought attention to the issue.
“I hope that the school takes this opportunity as a reminder to consider other ways that leadership can and should be accountable to students of color on campus,” Liss said.
Daily Staff Reporter Roni Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A previous version of this story called a law school organization If/When/How. The full name is If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice. The name has also been updated to reflect that the article is discussing the Michigan chapter specifically.