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Excerpted From: Danielle M. Conway, A Black Woman Law Dean Speaks about the Precarity of Leadership, 51 Southwestern Law Review 240 (2022) (45 Footnotes) (Full Document)


DanielleConwayUnequal Profession is a triumphant work by Professor Meera Deo, in large part because of its data-driven analysis about the pervasiveness of raceXgender bias and discrimination within the legal academy, but also it is in great measure because of its timing. In this most recent era of racial reckoning, we are confronting law and the legal academy's complicity in scaffolding systemic inequity around what should be strong democratic structures. The manner in which the legal academy has perpetuated a status quo that feeds for its existence off of raceXgender subordination is clearly demonstrated in Unequal Profession as both a real and pervasive phenomenon, weakening the legal academy as a democratic institution. What the legal academy does with the data and analysis that Professor Deo's work unmasks will determine whether and how committed lawyers and leaders will be to changing the structures of the academy and the legal profession from edifices of systemic inequity to institutions dedicated to transforming themselves and the society around them to those built on systemic equity.

Transforming legal education, the legal academy, and the legal profession along the lines of systemic equity requires a commitment to inclusive leadership. Chapter five of Unequal Profession, titled “Leading the Charge,” resonated strongly because it identified, albeit implicitly, the importance of leadership as one driving factor in administering a program of legal education, yet it clearly demonstrated that most women of color are outside the sphere of those with decanal leadership, power, and status. With the rule of law under assault, leadership, particularly in the legal academy and the legal profession, is essential for leveraging power and influence to respond decisively to existential threats to our democratic institutions.

Despite both acute and chronic threats and crises bearing down on law schools and the legal academy, the move to incorporate leadership--whether transformative, adaptive, or servant--within our discipline has been slow and relatively inconsequential in disrupting a concretized status quo consistently favoring white men. I proffer that a major factor leading to the patriarchal state of affairs in the legal academy is its failure to: first, acknowledge the dearth of women of color--among other minoritized groups--in both the faculty ranks and in influential leadership ranks and, second, exercise the will to disrupt the systemic inequities that further perpetuate the exclusion of women of color from the centers of power.

What I mean by centers of power is moving beyond taking the position of law dean to sitting in proximity to power and being able to access meaningful support, leverage professional development opportunities, and engage networks to secure influence within law schools, universities, and boards. Professor Deo's work urges a critical look at leadership to address why it is essential for our work as faculty members, having the full range of responsibilities, to model leadership and then transfer leadership skills through our teaching, research, service, and community engagement while simultaneously growing our capacity and willingness to incorporate leadership through our ranks and across our curricula. Stated another way, we cannot, with integrity, think we will transform legal education with the rhetoric that we prepare lawyers to be the leaders our society needs if we do not apply inclusive leadership theory and practice within our own house to tackle one of the most intractable problems facing the legal academy and our democratic institutions today: systemic raceXgender inequity.

While there is an abundance of legal scholarship treating the topic of leadership, providing definitions or not, as the case may be, it is clear that leadership is a necessary predicate for moving progress forward through day- to-day normalcy. Moreover, it is inclusive leadership that is vital in responding to crucible events as well as acute and chronic crises that are cascading through society and weakening our democratic institutions. If we are expecting the law students whom we train to get this right as the lawyers “who run our civilization,” it seems as though it is imperative to get leadership right first within our walls. Professor Deo's work implicitly calls on us to address what is leadership in legal education, the legal academy, and the legal profession, and why it is imperative that leadership include the voices, the experiences, and the perspectives of women of color. An intentional and meaningful discussion about inclusive leadership is key to determining whether and to what extent legal education, the academy, the profession, and the larger society will be able to change from edifices of system inequity to institutions transformed by systemic equity.

Before responding to my own experiences as a Black woman law dean and the liminal space in which the precarity of leadership subsists, it is vital to define leadership:

Leadership is dimensional, situational, and positional. It is a concept that is both abstract and pliable. It is also forged by internal, liminal, and external forces that, when exerted, move an object or a scenario in either expected or unexpected ways. It is the trusting and understanding of the self, the knowledge of the surrounding landscape, the prescience to see and evaluate what lies ahead, the courage to vision toward a sustainable future, the capacity to develop colleagues committed to serving the vision and the mission, the wisdom to learn from past successes and failures, the fortitude to adapt to changing circumstances, and the resilience to navigate through crucible experiences with humility that all work together to animate leadership.

Our positions as staff, faculty, and administrators in the legal academy and as attorneys in the legal profession are inherently ones requiring us to exercise leadership. Specifically, in the legal profession, the defining aspects of leadership are heightened by duty, accountability, and a sworn obligation to act equitably, transparently, and with integrity. This is what is required of leaders in the legal profession and in the legal academy under “normal” circumstances.

Yet, when facing issues--such as raceXgender bias and discrimination-- prominently identified in Professor Deo's work, inclusive leadership must be brought to bear to address, contest, and counter systemic inequity. Inclusive leadership requires action by those in proximity to power, influence, and status to reflect on their privilege, respond with acknowledgment of that privilege and the commensurate disadvantage shouldered by those with intersecting raceXgender identities, and collaborate as a collective to bring forward solutions that center accountability and corrective action to ameliorate well-documented harms.

That being said, few leaders will disagree that one approach to operationalizing inclusive leadership is to incorporate meaningful professional development into the functions of an organization or institution. In essence, effective and inclusive leaders know that upon assuming leadership, they must immediately invest significant time and attention to succession planning, meaning preparing future leaders for leadership roles and dedicating resources to building and sustaining the leadership muscle of these future leaders. Moreover, these leaders will also agree that crucible or crisis events press leaders, both the reluctant and the willing, into service; the success of these leaders depends, in part, on the degree to which they embrace inclusivity. And finally, those leaders who place service over self, who commit to mission and people first, and who remain accountable always will make lasting impressions on and contributions to the next generation of inclusive leaders.

[. . .]

There is a continuum of leadership that applies to our positions as women of color in the legal academy. On one side of that continuum, as evidenced in Professor Deo's work, women of color faculty are placed on the sidelines of institutional leadership. The next point of the continuumis where women of color experience the precarity of leadership when they take on leadership roles within the white patriarchy of the legal academy. Still further along the continuum is a point called leadership where white men are centered as the exemplar of the competent and confident leader. And finally, at the other end of the continuum is the point where inclusive leaders reside. Leaders and inclusive leaders have the privilege of proximity to power and influence. They have the capacity to be part of a collective to join with women of color to facilitate women of color traversing the continuum as they go from being outside the sphere of leadership to sharing space as inclusive leaders. What is needed now is the will to both (1) transform the status quo narrative of the role of faculty from siloed scholar to institutional citizen and (2) invest in implementing institutional professional development aimed at filling our ranks with inclusive leaders.

Unequal Profession is a dynamic and incisive book that provides a baseline for understanding and then responding to raceXgender bias and discrimination. In this way, I envision an environment where investment in professional development, as a function of leadership, creates opportunities for all faculty--including women of color--to engage shared governance from the perspective of growth toward institutional citizenship and inclusive leadership. Developing a sense of shared duty and obligation to promote inclusive leadership across the law school has the potential to create shared understandings of the challenges and opportunities facing the institution and allows faculty and administrative leaders to work in collaboration to advance the vision, mission, and goals of our democratic institutions.

Dean and Donald J. Farage Professor of Law, Penn State Dickinson Law, and co-curator of the AALS Law Deans Antiracist Clearinghouse Project.

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