ALBANY – As a “colored” girl growing up in segregated South Africa, Penelope “Penny” Andrews obtained intellectual salvation from the Irish nuns who provided her with the knowledge, confidence and discipline to lead.

Now, as the newly installed 17th president and dean of Albany Law School, Andrews hopes to offer the next generation of Albany-educated lawyers the blessings she received from the Dominicans.

“When students come into this building, all students, whether they come from poor backgrounds, whether they are people of color, whether they are women, they are already part of a small elite, with the potential to be very powerful leaders,” said Andrews, the first woman to lead the school since it opened in 1851. “I want them to embrace that when they walk in. I want to help them see themselves as leaders, as being able to go forward and to be powerful people—what the nuns did for me.”

Andrews on July 1 took over a law school that, like many, has seen a dramatic drop in applications and a decline in the bar passage rate and is concerned about whether its debt-laden graduates can find jobs.

Mary Ann Cody, chairwoman of the school’s board of trustees, said resolving those issues will require a bold and innovative approach, one that the board is confident that Andrews brings.

“Other than her stellar academic reputation as an international scholar and authority on human rights, she has a number of qualities that allow her to address these issues,” Cody said. “She is tenacious, she is conscientious. She is also ambitious and industrious. We think she is very conscientious about the placement opportunities, an evolving role of law schools.”

Andrews came to Albany most recently from the City University of New York School of Law, where she was a professor and associate dean and dealt with issues similar to those she faces in Albany. But her roots are in apartheid-ruled South Africa.

“I grew up in a ‘colored’ community,” Andrews, 57, said in an interview last week. “I went to school with only ‘colored’ children. I had no interaction with whites. It was what I think Jim Crow would have looked like in the south in terms of where people lived, where they went to school and their aspirations. The idea was that you really couldn’t go beyond a certain integrational level to be a full citizen.”

Andrews views herself as mixed race, something of an understatement since her bloodline flows with Jewish, Malaysian, Scottish and Rhodesian heritage. In South Africa, it distilled to “colored,” and relegated her to the back of the bus.

“We knew we couldn’t travel on buses designated for whites only,” she said. “We couldn’t go to parks. We couldn’t go to movie theaters. Our big thing in high school was trying to go to a movie theater and daring them to kick us out. We sat in the movie theater and were petrified.”

Yet Andrews said her family’s situation was not as bad as many.

“There were people who were much, much poorer than us,” Andrews said. “We had running water. We had electricity. We had an outside toilet. It wasn’t the Upper East Side of New York, but it wasn’t Haiti.”

Andrews was 10 when her parents divorced and 13 when her mother, 33, died of asthma. Her mother’s parting gift—sending her to a Catholic school in Cape Town set up by nuns to educate black and mixed-race children—proved to be her defining experience.

“The nuns were Irish women who went to live in South Africa, probably the most alien place they could think of, to educate,” Andrews said, with a lilting accent that combines her Cape Town roots with the influence of the Irish nuns and a certain inflection she picked up while living in Australia for a decade. “They were radicals. They were the first feminists I met, and also the first people who really instilled in me a sense of merit and responsibility and accountability.”

After high school, Andrews followed a typical career path for a “colored” girl in Cape Town and became a bookkeeper for a law firm. It was there that she began to develop an appreciation for the law, and a keener recognition of the racial injustices she had largely taken for granted, as an immutable fact of South African life.

“I became politically active when I left the law firm to go to work in a clothing factory,” Andrews said. “It was the first time I kind of confronted what I saw as exploitation, though I didn’t have a word for it. Things were changing in South Africa. This was 1976 and South Africa was changing and political activism was very much a part of young people and I started going to meetings. It was an awakening,” she said, adding that all her political sentiments “were fostered by the Catholic upbringing, the sense of fairness and justice.”

Andrews went on to study economic history, comparative African government and administration at the University of Natal in Durban and then studied law at the same institution.

Career in Academia

She left South Africa in 1983 to accept a scholarship to Columbia University School of Law. The first American she met, civil rights leader and political scientist Charles Hamilton, was on the faculty. Hamilton, who wrote “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America” with Stokely Carmichael, nurtured Andrews’ interest in civil rights.

Penelope Andrews, 57

President and Dean, Albany Law School

• 2010-12: associate dean for academic affairs, CUNY School of Law
• 2007-10: professor of law and director of international studies at Valparaiso Law School in Indiana
• 1993-2007: professor of law at CUNY
• 1986-92: professor at La Trobe University, Melboure Australia
• Has taught at law schools in Canada, Germany,the Netherlands, Scotlandand South Africa
• Consultant for the United Nations Development Fund for Women and the Ford Foundation

• 1984: Columbia Law, LL.M.
• 1982: University of Natal,Durban, South Africa, LL.B
• 1980: Natal, bachelor’s

• 2005: A finalist for the Constitutional Court in South Africa• Latest book, From Cape Townto Kabul: Reconsidering Women’s Human Rights, to be published later this year
• The Penelope E. Andrews Human Rights Award is given in her honor each year by the law school at the University of Kwa-Zulu-Natal
• Single, no children. Lives in downtown Albany

After law school, Andrews moved to Australia, where she taught at La Trobe University and advocated for the rights of the aboriginal peoples. She returned to New York in 1993 to teach at the City University and remained there for 14 years before becoming director of International Studies at Valparaiso Law School.

Andrews made her way back to CUNY in 2010, and along the way taught in law schools in Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland and South Africa.

“I became an American citizen because I realized in 2008 that I really am an American,” she said.

Albany Law School had been without a permanent dean for a year after Thomas Guernsey stepped down to return to the faculty in June 2011 and was led during that time by Connie Mayer, a professor and associate dean.

Justice Leslie Stein of the Appellate Division, Third Department, an Albany Law School graduate and a member of its board of trustees, said the school is in a state of evolution as it deals with enrollment and bar passage issues.

“I thought Dean Guernsey did a fabulous job, but [Andrews] will change some things around, and that is always a good thing,” Stein said. “She will certainly bring a world of perspective to legal education.”

Law school spokesman David Singer said the institution intentionally decreased enrollment to become more selective starting in 2003, and by 2005 had cut the incoming class size from 280 to 250. Singer said the school decided to further shrink its incoming enrollment to 230 this year.

However, the number of applicants has decreased considerably, down from 2,500 in 2010 to 2,000 this year.

According to the Law School Admissions Council, the number of students taking the LSAT has dropped 25 percent over the past two years. The American Bar Association reports that the number of applicants to ABA-approved law schools is down nearly 17 percent for the class entering later this summer.

Law School Challenges

“The crisis facing legal education means there is going to be inevitably a smaller class size,” Andrews said.

The need for lawyers is as great as ever, but students and attorneys need to re-tool to provide different kinds of services, she said.

“I don’t think there are too many lawyers,” she said. “I think lawyers are unevenly distributed. I think the wave of the future is for a proportion of law students to come to law school with a strong entrepreneurial sense, and we have to engender the sense and skills so they can go out and be entrepreneurial law practitioners.”

Andrews said she hopes to develop Albany Law as more of a national school—the proportion of out-of-state students has dropped from 48 percent in 2006 to 22 percent last year—with more of a focus on international law.

As the enrollment at the school has declined, so too has the bar passage rate.

In 2006, 88 percent of the graduates passed the bar exam on the first attempt; last year, 78 percent passed, Singer said. Andrews said recent bar exams have become more difficult, but she suggested students could be better prepared.

“Some students may not be sufficiently prepared because there is a tension in law schools about experiential learning and straight doctrinal training for the test,” Andrews said. “We have to find the balance. We want to produce lawyers who are good practitioners, but they have to pass the bar.”

State Senator John Sampson, a 1991 graduate who serves on the board of trustees, said that to attract top students the school has to foster a reputation as an “innovative, creative and exciting place.” Sampson said he is confident Andrews can bring the school to a higher level.

“She brings a sense of eagerness, eagerness on the part of the school and the students to excel,” Sampson said. “She brings a new energy to the institution, an energy that will inspire students.”

He said the school needs a strong foundation, one that comes from professors “who can instill not only a work ethic, but instill in students a sense of pride and sense that they want to far exceed what is acceptable.”

Andrews said the school has a strong faculty.

“Faculty are charming, but faculty are also individualistic,” Andrews said. ” I told the faculty when I came to interview…that unless we approach the challenges collectively it is going to be very hard to thrive. So I am trying to balance that individualistic approach that is so much the nature of law professors while at the same time recognizing that collectively this is a very strong institution.”

Andrews has almost no practical experience, a fact that concerns some members of the faculty.

“She is very well-regarded in the international law area, but she has never practiced law and has no real involvement with the bar,” said one professor.

But Cody, the board president, said Andrews was highly rated by the faculty.

“I assume that every candidate considered for this position has strengths and limitations, and that each of our strengths appealed to faculty and board members at different levels,” Andrews said. “I can only assume that choosing me indicated that they valued my strengths over any limitations they may have identified.”

Andrews has a three-year contract. The school declined to disclose her salary.

“I think deans are a little like fish,” she said. “If they hang around too long, they start to smell. A dean should be able to do what he or she has committed to do and agreed to do and also recognize that at a particular point, it’s time to step down.”