Illinois law school deans are a model of diversity

Illinois reached a significant milestone during the past year when Patricia Mell and Peter Alexander became the first black deans—and Mell the first female dean—at their respective law schools. With their arrival, a majority of Illinois's nine law schools are now led by women and people of color, setting a positive example for the next generation of lawyers and establishing a model of diversity for other states to follow.

It is perhaps fitting that this milestone occurred in 2003-the 20th anniversary of Nina S. Appel's rise to the leadership of the Loyola University Chicago School of Law. She, too, was the first woman to be dean at her institution-indeed, the first female dean at any Illinois law school. Likewise, Heidi M. Hurd was the first female dean at the University of Illinois College of Law when she was hired in 2002 and LeRoy Pernell was the first black dean at the Northern Illinois University College of Law when hired in 1997. Pernell now shares that distinction with Mell, the new dean at the John Marshall Law School, and Alexander, dean at the Southern Illinois University School of Law.

The number of women and people of color holding these prestigious positions in Illinois is markedly higher than the national average. The latest statistics available from the Association of American Law Schools Web site indicates that only 12.5 percent of the deans at AALS schools nationwide are women and nine percent identified themselves as minority. By comparison, 33 percent of Illinois' deans are currently women and 33 percent are minority.

Dean Alexander said the number of women and minorities in decanal posts in Illinois reflects the progressive thinking of the members of the higher education community in the state.

"We are poised to do great things for our schools, our students and for the clients we all serve," he said. "Having women and people of color in leadership positions helps to prepare law students for the practice of law, where they will encounter people from all walks of life and from all social, cultural and economic backgrounds."

Dean Mell agreed, saying: "The fact that the state of Illinois has a majority of women and/or minorities as deans says that the academy is now in a position to see just how valuable different perspectives can be in leading an institution."

This diversity of perspectives is evident from a cursory review of Chicago Daily Law Bulletin stories about the goals and accomplishments of these deans:

• In applauding Appel's 20 years of accomplishments at Loyola, for example, the newspaper noted that Dean Appel had co-founded the Civitas ChildLaw Center to train lawyers to represent abused and neglected children; established the Elder Law Initiative to serve elderly and indigent clients; began a Loan Repayment Assistance Program to assist graduates who take low-paying public service jobs; and created a business law clinic to help entrepreneurs and non-profit groups develop business skills to stabilize communities.

• When Dean Pernell was appointed to a second term in 2002, the newspaper noted that he had fulfilled his goal of increasing the school's clinical law programs and would begin to focus efforts on enhancing technology in the law school, expanding the school's facilities, and maintaining diversity among students, faculty and staff.

• At Southern Illinois University, the newspaper reported that Dean Alexander has made student recruitment a priority in his first year by personally attending a number of large recruiting forums as well as making calls at individual schools. By maintaining a high-profile presence at these events, Dean Alexander hopes to increase diversity in the student body by attracting more highly talented women and minorities to the school. Although not mentioned in the newspaper, Dean Alexander has also helped diversify the hiring pool for law faculty.

• An article announcing Dean Mell's appointment stated that she was attracted to John Marshall because of its history and mission of recognizing "that justice is best served when lawyers come from diverse backgrounds and perspectives." She was impressed by the innovative projects and research at the school, including the Fair Housing Center. In an interview for this newsletter article, Dean Mell reemphasized these points, saying that John Marshall "has not been bound by what's popular, but what's right. It was a good fit for me."

• The article announcing Dean Hurd's appointment noted that she is on the cutting edge of the legal field by bringing an interdisciplinary program to the University of Illinois. As a co-founder of the Journal of Law and Philosophy, Dean Hurd relocated the journal's headquarters to the university and plans to develop a program of law and philosophy at the school.

Dean Mell said that bringing about change and a new perspective to the job can create uncertainty as people get to know the new dean, but she noted that these challenges "come with any change." It is quickly evident that she doesn't let her status as a woman or a person of color divert attention away from the substantive issues.

"I never know if people are reacting to me because I'm a woman or because I'm black or just because I'm an authority figure," she said. "You don't really know why someone reacts the way they do, so you can't worry about it." Accordingly, she focuses on the person's questions and concerns about the substantive matters, rather than wasting energy second-guessing their motives.

Students have been complimentary about the different perspective they have observed from the new deans. Marcus Thorpe, a second-year law student at Southern Illinois University, observed that Dean Alexander models and encourages more "modern" ways of teaching law, which benefits the institution as a whole.

"On a more personal level," he added, "it is both gratifying and encouraging to see an African American in such a high position. I come from the inner city of Atlanta, Georgia, where I was definitely in the minority because I had aspirations of success. So, to come here and see a successful black man is wonderful. So often times we stereotype each other and come to believe, right or wrong, that one race will only achieve so much. So it is nice to know and believe that with the new century comes the disintegration of racist ideas that preclude African Americans from upper management job opportunities."

Thorpe said that Dean Alexander has served as a liaison between the Black Law Students Association and other organizations on campus. Thorpe said those connections are helpful because "there are many times when the agenda of black students has not been properly dealt with because blacks are so few in number at Southern Illinois University."

Women and minorities are still few in number within the legal academy as well. Accordingly, Dean Mell would like to see more people of color and more women pursuing a decanal career path.

"It can be frustrating, but they shouldn't allow that to deter them if they want to be in a position like this to make a difference," she said. "All women and minorities make a difference in their own ways. We all bring gifts to the table. If you think you have a gift of pulling people together and assisting them to be the best they can possibly be, this is something you should do."

Dean Mell said that dean searches can be quirky, and it is often difficult to know, as a candidate, whether one has meshed well with the search committee or the faculty. Most importantly, she said, "You have to be honest and upfront about who you are. It doesn't make sense to pretend to be something you're not."

She said this message is particularly important for women and persons of color because "leaders are held to a higher standard. Understanding that, you have to be consistent in the message that you give. Everyone needs to know what you want to do, and either they like that and hire you or they don't."

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June 2004Volume 9Number 4PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)