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There are no road maps to mark the surest path from rural Midwestern poverty to the dean’s chair at a prestigious New England law school, but Nell Jessup Newton, the recently appointed dean of the University of Connecticut School of Law, knows the route well. As it turns out, the pathway to becoming the first woman dean of the law school began in St. Louis, Mo., where Newton was born in 1944. Newton’s early childhood was spent in rural eastern Michigan, where, after her father left, she and her two brothers were raised by their alcoholic mother in a wood-stove-heated, one-room cabin. Seeking diversion from childhood adversity, Newton learned at an early age, with the help of her older brother, to escape into the romantic worlds of classic literature. Despite her surroundings, she was an exceptional student who excelled at school. Her early fascination with other worlds would eventually lead her to study ancient Greek and anthropology and later to develop an interest in American Indian law, a subject in which she is now recognized as one of the country’s foremost experts. The few positive role models Newton encountered in her young life made a profound impression on her. Aside from her older brother Rob, one man in particular stands out. Newton met Bob Kline when she stumbled into his record store one day in Clayton, Mo. Kline became a father figure to the young schoolgirl, giving her a record player and introducing her to opera and classical music. The man who helped bring the shy young Newton out of her shell was the father of actor Kevin Kline. The late 60s had a profound impact on Newton. It was during the height of the women’s movement that she met a female attorney for the first time, inspiring her to enroll at the University of California Hastings School of Law at the age of 29. In an era when browbeating of students and in-class humiliation was part of the curriculum, Newton spent her freshman year as a mediocre student. That changed during her second year, when she was allowed to choose her own professors. She fell in love with the study of law and graduated with distinction. Newton began teaching law in 1976 at Catholic University’s School of Law, in Washington, D.C., where she became the first woman to receive tenure. During her years as an educator she formed distinctive philosophies on legal education. She is a strong advocate of the role creativity plays in law. “Great lawyers,” she says, “are both logical and intuitive thinkers. If you just taught students the rules they’d be terrible lawyers, because as new areas develop, there are no rules in place. That’s where creativity comes into play.” As a founding member of the D.C./Maryland/Virginia/West Virginia Women Law Professors Group (in the late ’70s), Newton has been a national role model for women for some time. When the organization began, there were very few high profile role models for women in law. Although there are still only about 20 women law school deans nationwide, Newton says being the first woman dean at UConn is not as much of an issue as it was at the University of Denver Law School, where she spent two years at the helm prior to coming to Connecticut. The new dean is confident that her philosophies will blend well with UConn’s mission. “UConn has faculty members who think beyond the narrow rules and focus on the role law plays in society,” says Newton, “and I admire this. We have professors with phenomenal academic credentials who aren’t locked in the ivory tower.” Newton has several plans in store for the school’s development. One of her primary goals is to build the school’s endowment to provide resources for new faculty and programs, as well as a fund for academic scholarships. The prospect of an American Indian Law Center at the school is also something that the dean looks forward to implementing in the future, but that project is not on the top of her agenda right now. Her plans for the immediate future include the proposed establishment of an Intellectual Property Law Center, which would put the law school on the cutting edge of the fastest growing area of the law. An IP center is already in the school’s long-term development plans, but Newton hopes to move that agenda aggressively forward. She would like to approach the legislature this year for funding for the project. UConn is already the only law school in the country that allows first-year students to study IP, something Newton had tried unsuccessfully to introduce at Denver. To realize her ambitions Newton says it is crucial to develop both private and public funding, but a lack of money is not something this dean has ever let get in the way of ambition.

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