Getting to know Jennifer Rosato Perea, Dean of DePaul University College of Law
Kelly: You were appointed Dean of DePaul University College of Law in July 2015. Congratulations! Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me. The Women & the Law Committee of the ISBA is always very interested to hear from successful female leaders in our legal community. Tell us about your legal career.
JRP: My career has had a lot of twists and turns, always leading to where I was meant to be along the way. Before my last year of college, I wanted to be a social worker or teacher. I came to law school to be an advocate for children’s rights. Then during law school I knew I wanted to be a law professor someday, since it was a great combination of my love for the law and for teaching. I became a law professor, with a focus on family and children and the law, and was drawn to administration as a more impactful way to help students. I realized that I could make more of a difference in the law school and in legal education by being a dean, and that my personality and skill set was well-suited to be a dean. I was acting dean in the year that Drexel University’s law school was launched, then had six wonderful years at Northern Illinois University College of Law before coming to DePaul University College of Law. I am thrilled to be DePaul’s Dean, which is a perfect fit between DePaul’s identity and strengths, and my experience and passion.
Kelly: What has been your personal key to success?
JRP: It’s hard to think of just one key to success; there are different keys to different doors at different times. Overall, my “master keys” have been simple and constant: to work harder than most, to always do my best work, to remain positive and persevere no matter what resistance I might encounter, and to build strong relationships over time, always.
Kelly: What were the biggest inspirations for your career?
JRP: The biggest inspirations for my career have been the students whom I have had over the years (whether teaching preschoolers while I was in high school and college, or the last 25 years in law school). My students inspire me every day: with their hopefulness and promise, with their aspirations, and with their earnestness. As a first-generation college and law student, I appreciate the importance of education and can identify with my students’ struggles. As an educator, I think about the best ways to engage and inspire my students, and give them the knowledge and skills that they need to succeed. As an administrator, I think about how we can create a learning environment that is student-centered and encourages the students’ professional development and success in their careers.
Kelly: What has been your greatest success to date?
JRP: My greatest success is when I can help bring out the best in everyone who works with me – their best attitudes and their best work. Those individual successes translate to institutional positive change: most recently, to help launch a new law school at Drexel University, and to help NIU Law be recognized as one of the most underrated law schools in the country and a best value law school. My greatest success personally, so far, has been to be appointed as DePaul’s Dean.
Kelly: In 2012, you published an article, “Reflections of a Reluctant Pioneer”, an article in which you discuss being one of four Latina deans in the United States. Has that number increased since you wrote that article?
JRP: Unfortunately that number has decreased since then. I think I am now one of only two Latina deans in the United States, the same number as in 2009 when I became a permanent dean. When I was acting dean in 2006, I believe I was the first Latina dean in the country – still hard to believe!
Kelly: As one of the Latina pioneers, is there a successful woman that inspired you?
JRP: There really has not been one successful woman who has inspired me, but a compilation of many. I have been inspired by the accomplishments of women who have come before me, both nationally (such as Justice Sotomayor and Justice O’Connor), as well as in the organizations that I have been part of. I have been inspired by women along the way who persevere in the face of adversity or bias; by women who are comfortable with the choices they have made as a leader, mother, and partner (whatever those choices might be); by women (and men) who are clear in their personal and professional visions and then find the way to make those visions reality.
Kelly: In that article, you discussed a challenge minority leaders often face, which you say is the presumption of incompetence. Specifically, you discussed the way that this presumption presents itself in your life through feminization and sexualization. How has this presumption manifested itself and how do you overcome this presumption?
JRP: This presumption manifests itself in subtle ways, often hard to describe but still ever present. It might be a comment directed to how I am dressed, about my age, or a question about my husband or daughter – which would not be relevant in a professional context. I am often given advice or guidance or asked questions that seem patronizing and would not be directed to a male with the same level of experience that I have. I overcome this presumption by just doing the best job I can every day and proving myself as an expert in what I do-- I embrace the opportunity and savor the moments when I feel like I have gained someone’s confidence.
Kelly: Prior to joining DePaul, you served as Dean at Northern Illinois University College of Law for six years. You served as Acting Dean for Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law during its inaugural year and then as Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs. You also served as Associate Dean for Student Affairs at Brooklyn Law School. Did your management style come to you naturally or have you developed your own management style?
JRP: I think a little of both. Earlier on I am sure I was less authentic and reflective about my management style – and now I have tried to continue to develop my style based on what I do naturally, as well as building on strengths and improving in areas I wish to improve. When I started at DePaul a few months ago, I shared with them an “Owner’s Manual” to Dean Jenn, a PowerPoint that includes aspects of my management style which my staff regularly refer to even now. One of my colleagues in the past called me (as a compliment) an “undeanly” dean – in reflection I think what she meant by that is that I have an informal and warm demeanor, and like to keep the work environment positive; at the same time, I am very structured and organized in my work, and have high expectations for everyone (including me) with a focus on meeting goals that we set in advance.
Kelly: What do you think needs to be done to encourage women and minority law professors to take on more positions of leadership?
JRP: I think there needs to be much more proactive succession planning for leadership, which means not only identifying and encouraging new leaders, but also giving them the experiences and feedback they need to grow into leadership positions with strong skills and confidence. It would be also terrific to have more successful women and minority leaders out there so that those coming through the leadership ranks can identify with someone who is more like them and they feel the leadership aspiration is achievable – without losing their identities or being absent from their loved ones. For me, one of the greatest challenges has been the isolation of being the only one like me around.
Kelly: What is your vision for Latinas in the legal world?
JRP: My vision is that it should not be “eventful” for Latina leaders to be well-represented in every aspect of the legal world: as law partners, as directors of influential profit and nonprofit corporations, as corporate counsel of Fortune 500 companies and major universities, as judges and justices at the highest levels in state and federal courts, and of course in legal education as deans and higher education as provosts and presidents. The pipeline is not very strong for that vision to become reality anytime soon – but hopefully in my lifetime.
Kelly: What is your vision for DePaul University College of Law?
JRP: My vision for DePaul College of Law is for it to achieve its great potential by capitalizing on its distinctions, remaining dynamic and forward-looking, and strengthening its dedication to the University and Chicago communities. DePaul has been known as Chicago’s law school for a long time, and I want to continue that hundred-year tradition and take it up a notch –Chicago’s law school with a national luster.