Estimated reading time: 10 minute(s)

I noted in passing in at least one article that I graduated from CUNY Brooklyn College about a decade ago. Although I only went back on one occasion (some paperwork – I forget the exact paperwork since it was not long after I graduated) and feel no great connection to my alma mater one way or another, I felt compelled to comment on a rather absurd recent story from the CUNY (City University of New York) system.

CUNY, like many other colleges and college systems, runs profiles of successful graduates. On August 3, 2022, it profiled Ms. Yarelyn Mena, who graduated from Hunter College (a CUNY school) in 2015 before going to to study law at Fordham University School of Law, where she earned her J.D. in 2019.

Web archive page of CUNY's now cancelled profile of graduate Yarelyn Mena.
Note the “web.archive.org” in the URL. There is a reason why I had to use the archived version of this profile.

The feature on Ms. Mena noted that she was part of Mr. Johnny Depp’s legal team in his ultimately successful defamation suit against his ex-wife, Ms. Amber Heard. The now-archived CUNY feature on Ms. Mena (remember the now-archived point, for it will be important) detailed her role:

Meet Yarelyn Mena, a Hunter College ’15 alum and associate attorney at Brown Rudnick LLP, who worked on the controversial lawsuits between Johnny Depp against his ex-wife Amber Heard. She’s the youngest lawyer on the team at age 29.

Let us ignore some of the strange word and sentence choices in CUNY’s profile and continue to another relevant passage.

Though Yarelyn did not speak in the courtroom, her contributions to the actor’s team included copious legal research, contributions to the draft motion and preparation of witnesses and attorneys.

The lack of an Oxford comma hurts me. Moreover, I had bad memories of the word copious. Back when I was the senior editor of my school paper (high school, not college), one writer on the paper tried to squeeze the word copious into every article. It was always just off by that much.

But I digress.

This is not an examination of the sub-par writing quality of CUNY’s profile of Ms. Mena. While writing quality may not have done Ms. Mena justice, the profile itself seems entirely well deserved. After noting her small role in the Depp-Heard saga, the profile went on to more important matters involving Ms. Mena’s educational journey and her advice for current high school students and members of the CUNY community who want to make the most of a CUNY education. For example, many people choose CUNY schools because they are affordable. Ms. Mena explained that this was one reason she had made a CUNY undergraduate education part of her journey toward becoming a lawyer:

As is the case with many students, CUNY was an affordable option for Yarelyn, who initially attended Long Island University before transferring to Hunter to study psychology.

I personally chose to attend Brooklyn College over Fordham (I did not apply to many places so those were ultimately the options) because of money. While I could have chosen Fordham and it would have cost about the same as my high school education, I did not see the value added for the cost. Ms. Mena notes here that pricing played a key role in why she chose Hunter. I dare say that Ms. Mena is exactly the kind of graduate that CUNY should be touting – and the reasons have nothing to do with her small role on Mr. Depp’s legal team. Ms. Mena responsibly chose to attend an affordable undergraduate college, made the most of her undergraduate education, graduated from a well-regarded local law school, and obtained a job at a law firm that is well-regarded enough to secure high-paying clients such as Mr. Depp. This is a quintessentially CUNY success story, and the kind of story that CUNY should be pitching to New York City high school students who are otherwise in danger of going into substantial debt for an undergraduate education at a third-rate college. That Ms. Mena played a supporting role on Mr. Depp’s legal team provided nothing more than a prompt for discovering her story and accomplishments.

I implicitly spoiled the story when I linked to an archived version of CUNY’s story about Ms. Mena. This is not the first time I have linked to an archived article at The New Leaf Journal, and it certainly will not be the last. But the reason I did so in this case is because CUNY took down the original article about its successful graduate. Now let us see where the link leads on the evening of August 6, 2022.

Now there is no profile of Ms. Mena (note that I archived the replacement page to ensure that there is evidence of CUNY’s malfeasance if it later reverses its decision). Where did the profile of Ms. Mena go? Instead, we have the following statement which I will quote in its entirety:

We appreciate everyone who shared their concerns about an article in our newsletter featuring a recent CUNY graduate who worked on Johnny Depp’s legal team. We understand the strong negative emotions this article elicited and apologize for publishing the item. We have removed it from our CUNYverse blog. The article was not meant to convey support for Mr. Depp, implicitly or otherwise, or to call into question any allegations that were made by Amber Heard. Domestic violence is a serious issue in our society and we regret any pain this article may have caused.

I noted some instances of poor writing in CUNY’s profile of Ms. Mena. This statement is one of the most disgracefully weaselly pieces of writing that I have come across in a long time. It could make some of the leaders of the fact-checking industry blush. One is left with many questions and few answers. Let us examine the statement line-by-line.

  • “We appreciate everyone who shared their concerns…”
    Comment: Who is this “everyone”? Who expressed their concerns?
  • “…in our newsletter featuring a recent CUNY graduate who worked on Johnny Depp’s legal team.”
    Comment: I recall that the now-unnamed “recent CUNY graduate’s” name is Ms. Yarelyn Mena. I am unclear as to how Mr. Depp’s transgressions necessitate un-personing Ms. Mena, and the snake who composed this statement did not see fit to explain.
  • “We understand the strong negative emotions this article elicited and apologize for publishing the item.”
    Comment: Again, CUNY refuses to disclose who had “negative emotions” about the article, much less why I or anyone else should care about that person’s negative emotions.
  • “We have removed it from our CUNYverse blog.”
    Comment: You have also un-personed the lawyer.
  • “The article was not meant to convey support for Mr. Depp, implicitly or otherwise, or to call into question any allegations that were made by Amber Heard.”
    Long Comment: In full disclosure, I had heard the name “Johnny Depp” before the trial, but I did not know anything about him beyond the fact that he was some sort of actor. I had never heard of Ms. Amber Heard. No reasonable person could read the profile of Ms. Mena as an “endorsement of Mr. Depp.” Now granting that my position is that this decision was most likely made by impotent do-nothing tax-payer-funded bureaucrats, the statement itself clearly evinces CUNY’s now-official endorsement of Ms. Heard over Mr. Depp, an issue that has nothing to do with the fact that Ms. Mena’s story is a good example for prospective and current CUNY students. CUNY is in fact so committed to not giving the appearance (to whom we know not) of supporting Mr. Depp or questioning Ms. Heard that it is willing to un-person its own alum, who was not a party to the relationship of Mr. Depp and Mr. Heard and simply performed legal research in support of the senior lawyers at her law firm. If CUNY is this passionate about the cause of Ms. Heard, a wealthy celebrity who lost a civil defamation case, it ought to explain precisely why it is so invested in Ms. Heard. CUNY should also explain its intellectual rationale for disagreeing with the jurors who found in favor of Mr. Depp’s claim that he had been defamed by Ms. Heard’s claims of abuse. In so explaining why this position is so important that CUNY must un-person Ms. Mena for playing a supporting role in Mr. Depp’s legal case, I request that CUNY make its argument without falling back on the fact that Ms. Heard is a woman and Mr. Depp is a man.
  • “Domestic violence is a serious issue in our society and we regret any pain that this article may have caused.”
    Comment: Interesting. Before CUNY confidently asserted (albeit without details) that the article caused concerns and negative emotions to unspecified individuals. Now it “may” have caused pain. What a shift! Regarding domestic violence, unless CUNY is accusing Ms. Mena of engaging in it, I am not sure why this broad and serious issue led to CUNY un-personing her.

Finally, pretending for the sake of argument that CUNY is making a serious intellectual case here, I will assess that case. Throwing my cards on the table, I will note that I am not averse to the conclusion that lawyers should be held accountable for their professional behavior. However, our system of justice requires that, in both criminal and many civil manners, attorneys vigorously represent their clients, even when those clients may well be terrible people (I dare say that criminal defense lawyers and immigration lawyers often represent people who are far more objectionable than either Mr. Depp or Ms. Heard). Neverthelss, I do not think “I am a lawyer representing my client” is an argument-ending defense to every critique or allegation. I fully recognize that some lawyers fail to conduct themselves in an ethical manner.

Now let us turn to the case of Ms. Mena. Mr. Depp filed a lawsuit against Ms. Heard. Both sides procured legal counsel. I was not one of the people glued to YouTube watching the proceedings, but as far as I know, there are no meaningful allegations of misconduct against Mr. Depp’s legal team. They were paid to do a job and they not only did their job (representing Mr. Depp), they also convinced a civil jury of Mr. Depp’s and Ms. Heard’s peers that Mr. Depp claims were meritorious, while finding only a single claim among Ms. Heard’s many counter claims to be of merit. Now I understand that some people who followed the proceedings believe the verdict was rendered in error, some perhaps because they believe Ms. Heard and others because they believe that the case should have been resolved with respect to some cosmic societal considerations about domestic violence and sex roles instead of the particular facts and circumstances at issue. Even if Mr. Depp is a liar and the jury was wrong, who can identify any misconduct by Mr. Depp’s lawyers? What, specifically, did Ms. Mena, who was assigned to the case by her employer and who did not even have a speaking role at the trial, do that was so vile that CUNY needed to publicly distance itself from her and negate her very existence? How does Ms. Mena’s role on the trial negate the fact that her educational and career path represents a real-world positive example of what is possible with an affordable public college education?

(Aside: I note another peculiar writing point in the profile of Ms. Mena. CUNY described her as having “discussed the lack of Latinx representation in the legal field” in an interview with Diario Libre. That article, which CUNY did link to, addressed the relatively low number of Hispanic and Latina lawyers, and did not employ “Latinx” in doing so. Why CUNY chose to edit the word choices made by Diario Libre (nowhere does it suggest that it was at the behest of Ms. Mena) will likely forever remain a mystery.)

Before I conclude, I credit Mr. Jonathan Turley for the linking to the archived version of the original post – and I encourage you to read his insightful commentary on the sad case. There were only two Wayback Machine captures of the original profile of Ms. Mena. Had CUNY been a little bit quicker, it may have decisively erased the existence of its profile of its successful alum.

This is certainly not the first time that CUNY, which is currently being sued for repeatedly turning a blind eye to antisemitism, has publicly lit itself on fire. It is not even the worst. CUNY sometimes makes decisions that negatively affect current students. I will venture that Ms. Mena has more important things to do than to fret over a CUNY profile, having already obtained what she needed from the CUNY school system.

Nevertheless, CUNY’s embarrassing behavior with respect to the profile of Ms. Mena is troubling in two respects. Firstly, CUNY is funded by the tax-payers, and it ought to answer to the tax-payers and their representatives. This story is evidence that CUNY’s bloated bureaucracy lives in a fantasy world, beholden to its most deranged bureaucrats rather than to the public and its normal, hard-working students and alums. Secondly, CUNY is for many New Yorkers the only affordable college choice (I do not consider accruing obscene amounts of debt for an undergraduate degree to be “affordable”). I was puzzled when many of my high school classmates opted to go the “obscene amounts of debt” route to go to mid-to-low-level colleges instead of going to a CUNY school wherein they could earn a credential of equal (or in some cases, better) value. If CUNY decides to continue its descent into madness, even its affordable tuition will become very difficult to justify.

CUNY has an obligation to the tax-payers and to the thousands of New York students for whom CUNY is the best and most affordable option to not be insane. CUNY’s conduct with respect to the Ms. Mena profile suggests that it is not meeting this important obligation. If CUNY cannot be trusted to be sane, than the voters ought to elect someone who will commit to setting this very important New York City resource straight.

I conclude by noting that I know nothing about Ms. Mena other than how she was described in the CUNY profile. But from that profile, I will state again that her story is a positive example of what CUNY can offer at its best. Ms. Mena appears to have carefully planned her educational journey, going for good monetary value as an undergraduate, taking advantage of her public education to make it into Fordham Law, and parlaying her Fordham Law degree into a good starting job at a prestigious law firm (anyone who is familiar with the number of unemployed lawyers will know that turning a law degree into a job as a lawyer is not a given except for those coming from the most elite law schools). All of these points are true regardless of what one thinks of Ms. Mena as a person or a lawyer (I have no view on either of these points, but she sounds like a smart and hard-working person from the two profiles I looked at). I certainly encourage anyone considering college today to read the now-archived profile of Ms. Mena and to use it as a reminder that college is not always about what you spend (unless you put yourself in debt for the rest of your life, in which case it will end up being about what you spent), but rather what you do with your college education. Many parents and students consider money in all matters except college. Ms. Mena shows that it is possible to study and chew gum at the same time. As a fellow CUNY graduate, I tip my hat to Ms. Mena for her successful journey from Hunter to becoming a gainfully employed attorney at a notable law firm.

Now let us hope that CUNY does not go so far down the rabbit hole that a CUNY education cannot be justified for any amount of money, no matter how small.