Kimberly Mutcherson, left, and Renee McDonald Hutchins. Courtesy photos

 

Rutgers Law School on Jan. 2 named Kimberly Mutcherson as its new co-dean. Eight days later, the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clark School of Law announced that University of Maryland law professor Renée McDonald Hutchins will assume its deanship in April.

The appointment of two African-American women to law school deanships in the span of two weeks would have generated substantial attention 10 years ago. Today, it has become less of an anomaly.

The number of women leading law schools has been rising steadily, as have the number of minority deans. Perhaps nowhere has that trend been more noticeable than among the ranks of minority women law deans. At least 19 minority women are currently serving as dean or interim dean, or soon will assume deanships, according to Catherine Smith, associate dean of institutional diversity and inclusiveness at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law who has been keeping an informal tally over the past year.

That figure constitutes 10 percent of all American Bar Association-accredited law schools. Among the diverse women leading law schools are L. Song Richardson at the University of California, Irvine School of Law; Angela Onwuachi-Willig at Boston University School of Law; and Camille Nelson at American University Washington College of Law. Diversity numbers are poised to increase this spring, as schools appoint new deans for the upcoming academic year.

“It’s long overdue,” Hutchins said in an interview Thursday. “The talent that has always been there is finally being recognized. It’s no secret that women and people of color have had to fight harder to get the recognition and move into positions of leadership. I am delighted that it is now happening.”

Fully 35 percent of law schools are now helmed by women, according to data compiled by the Association of American Law Schools, a figure that’s up from 30 percent in 2015. Half of the top 10 schools in the U.S. News & World Report rankings have women deans, although none are minorities. The AALS was unable to provide data on the total number minority law deans this week, but they make up more than 16 percent of all deans, by Smith’s count.

Even so, the law deans collectively have a way to go before they reflect the composition of the student body. Nearly a third of the first-year students who enrolled last fall are minorities, and 53 percent are women. Minority women make up nearly 19 percent of the new class, according to ABA figures.

The rise of women and minorities in legal academia that has occurred is the result of a concerted effort to bolster their faculty and enrollment numbers from groups often spearheaded by women and minority faculty themselves.

“I think that a critical part of people of color moving into deanships is that a national network of diverse faculty is working to diversify the profession with a real focus on pipelines to the profession,” she said. “There is no dean pool candidate without a pool of tenured full professors.”

To that end, a cadre of legal academics composed primarily of minorities has been mentoring diverse students and lawyers to encourage them to pursue teaching law and to help them navigate that path, be it through advising on scholarship, helping them secure entry-level teaching jobs, or supporting their pursuit of tenure, she said.

More formal programs have been created to set women and minority professors on the deanship track as well. Seattle University Law School since 2007 has hosted a conference called Promoting Diversity in Law School Leadership, which every two years brings aspiring women and minority deans to campus for two days to help prepare them for that process. (It’s now co-hosted by Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.) The Society of American Law Teachers’ faculty development conference, the 12-year-old Lutie Lytle Black Female Faculty Writing Workshop; and regional and national conferences focused on the scholarship of diverse law faculty have all helped better position women and minorities for deanships, Smith said.

The relatively recent increase of women and minorities in law dean positions is another factor in their growing numbers, Mutcherson said.

“I won’t say it’s a tipping point, but I think there is something really powerful about the amount of visibility we have now,” she said. “It never occurred to me in law school to think about being a dean, but I think a lot of students now will go to law school with deans who are women, people of color, or some other category of folks who have not traditionally been law school deans. It plants a seed that wouldn’t have necessarily been there before.”

Mutcherson recalled a conversation she and several other minority women faculty had years ago with Camille Nelson, then dean at Suffolk University Law School, when they shared their ambivalence and reluctance to pursue deanships.

“Camille Nelson said, ‘We can’t continue to complain that there aren’t people who look like us in these positions if none of us are willing to take them,’ ” Mutcherson said. “It was one of those things that has continued to play in the back of my mind. She’s absolutely right.”

But some have expressed concern that more deanship opportunities are opening up to women and minorities precisely because the job has become more difficult of late due to lower enrollment, budget woes, and falling bar pass rates. It falls to deans to tackle those pressing problems.

Hutchins recalled a female academic joking several years ago that, “The boys broke it, and now the women are going to fix it.” She’s under no illusion that her new dean job will be easy. Hutchins aims to leverage the UDC’s historically strong clinical programs and maintain its majority-female student body. But she also wants to increase enrollment and improve the school’s bar pass rate, which has hovered below 50 percent in recent years. And she doesn’t believe she and other women and minority deans are being set up to fail by accepting those positions in difficult times.

“I have no doubt that the women who are stepping up into these roles are up to the challenge,” Hutchins said. “I think the women who are moving into these roles are remarkably talented, went into it with their eyes open, and are not naïve to the challenges.”

The nation’s political climate may also be prompting more women and minority legal academics to pursue leadership positions, or at least drawing more attention to their successes, Mutcherson theorized.

“These smaller victories carry a lot more weight in a time where there is a lot more chaos going on in the country,” she said. “Whether it’s me becoming a law school dean, or a record number of women in the [U.S. House of Representatives], those are the kinds of things that are really powerful, particularly in this moment.”