A Mentor of Her Own
Lisa A. Kloppenberg
I have been a law school dean for only six weeks as I write this essay, so I
cannot offer extensive wisdom from the decanal trenches. Nevertheless, as one of
a small number of women deans at ABA-approved law schools and one of the
youngest law deans, I can speak to the significant role mentors played in my
choice to become a dean. I would not be Dean of the University of Dayton School
of Law if it were not for the mentoring and support of numerous leaders in legal
education. Many people have reached out to provide information and encouragement
when I expressed an interest in becoming a dean. This group cut across
generations. It included men and women who served as deans, former deans,
associate and assistant deans, faculty members, ABA accreditation team members,
AALS presenters, and organizations like the Women Deans Databank at Georgetown
Law Center. I am grateful for all such support, but in this essay I seek to
honor a particular mentor, Dorothy Wright Nelson.
Dean Nelsonís story is important. She was one of the early female law deans
and she demonstrated that a woman with a collaborative style could be a
successful dean. Additionally, she shaped a vision of legal education that was
quite prescient and continues to be appropriate for many law schools in the 21st
century. I hope this modest contribution of a fledgling dean might inspire
others Ė particularly women and people of color -- to reach out and seek
mentors, and to explore possible strengths they can bring to academic leadership
roles, even if they do not fit a traditional model. I also hope this essay might
inspire law deans and others in legal education to continue to shepherd
newcomers, to share information about leadership opportunities with colleagues,
and to provide leadership opportunities for them when possible.
A recent study of corporate leadership in the United States, Canada and the
United Kingdom highlights the importance of a role model or mentor for women
executives. Women of color reported that having a mentor or role model was of
primary importance in their success. Mentors model successful behavior, share
their positive and negative experiences, and provide important contacts or
social capital needed for professional advancement. The AALS Deanship Manual
lists over 25 tasks a modern dean must sometimes perform (e.g, mediator,
fundraiser, administrator). These tasks vary widely and sometimes conflict. So,
not surprisingly, there are many ways of achieving success as a dean. People
bring a variety of personalities, skills and experiences to the job, offering
combinations of strengths that might match the needs and visions of various
People say that Chief Justice Warren Burger looked like heíd been chosen
from central casting. Given his stature and distinguished countenance, he just
looked like a Supreme Court justice was expected to look. Iím certain that,
when she was named Interim Dean at the University of Southern California
("USC") Law Center in 1967, Dorothy Wright Nelson did not look or act
like a dean drawn from central casting. First, she was young Ė less than 40 at
the time. She had graduated from UCLA School of Law in the mid-1950s, worked
with Dean Roscoe Pound on law reform, and had been a law professor at USC for
only 10 years at the time of this appointment. She was among a group that Dean
Herma Hill Kay has termed the "Early Women Law Professors," comprised
of 14 women who were full-time, tenure or tenure track law professors (not
including law librarians or adjunct faculty) between 1900-1959. Like most of the
early women law deans, she was an internal candidate.2 Few
opportunities arose for women to be hired as external candidates until recently.
Nevertheless, a small group did prove themselves valuable leaders within their
own faculties and became deans at their own institutions. Additionally,
remaining at their own institutions is preferable for some women who are less
mobile due to spousal employment or childrearing issues. The story of these
early law deans is fascinating given the demographics of law schools three
decades ago. While female students now comprise nearly half of incoming law
classes, women in law schools and in the legal academy were much more scarce in
the late 1960s.
Dean Nelson was also different in that she was the mother of two young
children who placed a high priority on her family. Her husband James Nelson was
a lawyer and for many years served as a state court judge in Los Angeles.
Together, they reared their children, placed an importance on their faith, and
were active in the local community.
Moreover, Dean Nelsonís style was quite unique. She was not authoritarian.
Indeed, at first glance, she might not appear sufficiently tough to be a dean.
She was extremely friendly, approachable, kind and solicitous of othersí
opinions. She was inclined to serve and honor others, rather than be served or
honored. She emphasized collaboration and teamwork, forging alliances between
people with common interests. She was able to help faculty formulate a vision
and then she worked tirelessly to engage prominent judges and lawyers with the
possibilities and problems of the institution. Dean Nelson reached out to many
constituencies, encouraging student involvement and spearheading new legal
research centers which served students and the local community. I think I once
heard Teddy Roosevelt described as a "locomotive in pants;" If thatís
right then Dorothy Nelson was a "locomotive in a dress."
Dean Nelson worked during a turbulent period of civil rights struggles. The
Watts riots were centered not far from the USC campus during her tenure. She was
a spiritual person, an active Bahaíi who brought her values to life in her
daily work, actively promoting diversity and equality and respect for each
person. She listened carefully and brought other people along on her
initiatives, forming coalitions among diverse groups. And people soon saw that
she was tough in a less authoritarian way Ė she was ambitious, purposeful,
persistent, optimistic and full of energy. For staff, it must have been quite a
challenge to keep up with her ideas and initiatives.
Two years after her appointment as interim dean, Nelson was named Dean of the
USC Law Center in 1969. She served in that capacity until President Carter
appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 1980. She is
currently a Senior Judge on that court. Nelson was an extremely successful dean
and accomplished traditional tasks well. On the development front, she organized
alumni and friends of the law school and encouraged varied rewards based on
varied levels of giving. The law schoolís endowment grew from around $500,000
in the late 1960s to over $6,000,000 by 1980. Annual giving increased from
$200,000 to $850,000 per year in the same period. The national visibility of the
law school greatly increased in her decade at the helm. The faculty grew from
about a dozen to 32 full-time professors during this period. Faculty scholarship
increased and more professors began to address interdisciplinary issues. As Dean
Nelson described it, they went from writing about cases to writing about broader
social issues. USC recruited faculty members from prestigious law schools and
within a decade, USCís faculty members were being regularly recruited by top
tier law schools. Applications rose, from around 725 at the beginning of her
tenure to 2,500 applicants by 1980. The poolís LSAT and GPA medians soared
while diversity increased. Bar passage rates improved and by the end of her
tenure, 80% of USC students passed. Thus, by many established measures, Nelson
was an astounding success.
During her time as dean, Nelson continued to produce scholarship, authoring a
casebook on Judicial Administration that focused presciently on Alternative
Dispute Resolution (ADR). She was active in the leadership of the American
Judicature Society, worked with the Judicial Conference, chaired ABA and AALS
committees, and acted as arbitrator in a disputed gubernatorial election. Nelson
served on commissions for four presidents and undertook numerous community
service activities. In 2000, she was honored by the American Bar Association for
her lifelong work in promoting ADR.
But Dean Nelson is remarkable not just for being one of the first women deans
of a major law school or for her collaborative style. It is her vision of legal
education and the mission of a law school that is still worth thinking about.
Given the issues we face today in the legal academy, she seems quite prescient.
Under her leadership, USC formulated and implemented a vision of the "law
center," an educational enterprise that served not only future lawyers, but
many audiences. USC enhanced its CLE programs and 5,000 attorneys per year
attended by 1980. The ABA accredited USCís new paralegal certificate program,
which trained 300 people per year by 1980. Jointly with the USC School of Public
Administration the law school established a program for Court executives leading
to a masterís degree in judicial administration. Other joint degree programs
flourished -- in social work, engineering and business. An LLM was offered and a
joint PhD/JD program with Caltech was started. USCís emphasis on outreach and
lifelong learning has kept it closely connected with many alumni and friends.
Nelson also championed clinical legal education, which USC had pioneered in
the 1920s. Research and service centers were established, dealing with Dispute
Resolution, Poverty Law and Legal Services for USC students. Like her innovative
Judicial Administration course, in which law students went to courts, debriefed
with judges and visited prisons, through clinical education Nelson promoted
student understanding of the broader context in which law was applied. She also
took student concerns on campus seriously, hiring a Dean of Student Affairs and
engaging in frequent dialogue with students.
In its scholarly initiatives, the Law Center was interdisciplinary. Nelson
was extremely proud of faculty work in the areas of biotechnology and law,
social science research, environmental law, and law and economics. She started a
visiting faculty exchange with foreign law schools and continually emphasized
increasing integration of international issues into U.S. legal education.
Obviously, I am not a detached and impartial observer on the topic of Dorothy
Wright Nelson. She has been an inspiration, a role model, and a source of
strength for me. I met her as a student at the USC Law Center, in her course on
judicial administration. I was fortunate to clerk for her on the Ninth Circuit
and she has continued to serve as one of my closest advisors on career choices.
She has mentored many of us, particularly former students or former clerks in
law practice, academia and the judiciary. She was among the first to nudge me
into thinking about being a dean at a relatively young age. She not only
bolstered my confidence in my ability to raise funds and make tough decisions;
her example proved that a woman with a collaborative style and devotion to
family could be a successful dean. And her vision of the "law center"
with its collaborative emphasis on outreach, interdisciplinary scholarship,
clinical and skills education is still compelling. The breadth of the "law
center" venture, from its social policy concerns to its integration of
international perspectives, is inspiring and will yield students who understand
better the context in which the law operates.
I hope those of you who are deans make time in your busy schedules to mentor
others. I hope some readers will be inspired to go find mentors like Judge
Nelson and learn about leadership opportunities in the legal academy. The only
drawback to having a mentor like Judge Nelson is that, along with the
inspiration and support come heightened performance expectations. If she could
do this back in the 1960s and 1970s, what should we be able to accomplish
today?! I know I wonít fill Judge Nelsonís shoes, but Iím honored to walk
in them for a while. On tough days or with difficult decisions, it is comforting
to remember Dean Nelsonís bustling image and ask how she would approach a
particular dilemma. And I know, if needed, I can always call on her for advice
Thank you, Judge Nelson. So many of us are indebted to your vision, your
accomplishments and your path-breaking example.