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Excerpted From: M. Isabel Medina, Roundtable on Intersectionality and Strengths and Challenges in Leadership at the Fourth National People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference (NPOC 2019), 23 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Social Change 51 (2020) (10 Footnotes) (Full Document)


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MIsabellMedinaEvery law professor is a leader. We get up in a classroom several times a week and lead a class. For some of our students we are and may remain a powerful source of inspiration. Some of us are activists in the profession; some of us emerge as leaders through our writings. Some of us function in other leadership roles that do not directly engage administration; some of us have served as chairs of our University Faculty bodies or as chairs of key University or law school committees.

Every person in this room is a powerhouse of leadership. Today, joining me at this table area handful of the talented women of color leading law schools today. Our goals are to inspire and empower others. We acknowledge the challenges that face any leader of a legal institution today but focus on the particular challenges raised by intersectionality. Race, color, ethnicity, national origin, gender, disability, age, language--these are traits that evoke deeply stereotypical responses in others, responses that tend to blind us to the uniquely unique individual actually before us.

I have attended several leadership conferences or trainings in the past year, all of them excellent: one put together by legal academics specifically for women; another organized by legal academics, including academics who are persons of color, specifically designed to encourage or inform persons of color interested in formal leadership opportunities, principally deaning; and another a more corporate-type workshop designed to improve leadership and managerial effectiveness as well as develop what I have come to appreciate as institution-building. All of the workshops were excellent. All of them left me wanting to hear more from women of color who had stepped up to the leadership plate.

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In preparation for the discussion, we identified a number of questions that might be addressed. Some of the questions are of the type frequently addressed in traditional law leadership conferences: questions as to skills that have proved essential or helpful in attaining or maintaining one's position as leader; questions as to the pathways to and motivations for leadership or administrative work; questions that explore effective leadership training as well as the role of mentors.

Panelists were also asked to reflect on the extent to which intersectionality affects their leadership role with regard to diversity in the various law school or university constituents-- students, faculty staff and alumni. The ultimate question for our panelists was, “given the costs for persons of color, and in particular women of color, do you feel empowered to support diversity initiatives?”

At the conference I attended put together by corporate consultants aimed at institution building and leadership effectiveness, the virtues of cultivating a dissenting culture were emphasized. I have served under ten deans at my own institution and observed at least three deans in other institutions as a visiting professor, and I'm not sure any of them valued a dissenting culture. What were the panelists' thoughts about the idea of a “dissenting culture?” What are effective ways to engage with dissenting voices? Do law deans in general value or encourage a dissenting culture? Does dissent pose a challenge to women of color leaders that men in general and white men in particular do not face?

How does age intersect with race and gender? Age and experience are related. Unquestionably they tend to act as positives for men, although it is less easy to judge this factor with regard to men of color, but for women age does not wear easily. One of the most successful deans to date at my institution was an older person who was both white and male--would faculties be as receptive to older persons or women of color?

Time did not allow us to even begin to explore all of these issues. We were delighted to be selected by the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Social Change for publication, but after consideration and discussion decided as a group that we would prefer to submit brief essays for publication, rather than publish the panel reflections. I have opted to merge the two to give readers a sense of how the panel proceeded, share my introductory remarks and offer brief exploration of the various issues that generated the push to submit this panel to the organizers of NPOC 2019. In preparation for the panel I did some preliminary research to identify the literature that has emerged exploring law school administrators. In particular, I was interested in literature addressing intersectionality or the emergence of women, in particular women of color, as deans. This panel's reflections contribute to that literature.

There are 203 ABA-accredited law schools in the United States, including Puerto Rico's law school. Sixteen of those law schools are headed by women of color--that's roughly seven percent of law schools. Should that figure surprise us in 2019? If we include all women deans, the percentage rises dramatically to thirty five percent. If we look at color alone and eliminate gender, it drops down to approximately sixteen percent. I am conscious of the inherent limitations in looking at race and gender alone in exploring questions of leadership and leadership effectiveness. Herman Hill Kay's 2002 essay on women law deans, discussing the University of Toledo Law School's annual symposium on leadership in legal education, concluded that “neither the content nor the style of these essays suggests that deaning is experienced differently by men and women.” As Kay's essay noted, however, only ten out of ninety-eight essays in the Toledo symposia had been authored by women. Almost certainly, the experience of women deans is bound to be different to some extent, and women deans are likely to face challenges unfaced by men. For example, women deans may face challenges in dining with potential donors that men are unlikely to face. Women deans who are pregnant are likely to face challenges not faced by men.

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All of the leadership conferences I attended emphasized and acknowledged the challenges facing law schools and law school leaders today. Those challenges include enrollment trends; polarized political communities; the viability of shared governance principles in an increasingly corporatized institutional climate; the viability of a tenure system as the primary law faculty; the increased costs of legal education and the shifting financial relationships between law schools and their home institutions; and the challenges posed by technology, not just in terms of the substantial costs of maintaining cutting edge technology and educating students in their use, but also in the ways that artificial intelligence is changing the nature of law practice and access to legal services and the need for legal professionals to participate at the design stage rather than when the technology is available.

I come at the question of leadership not from the perspective of an administrative leader, but as a member of one of the constituencies with whom deans most interact--law faculties. That perspective has led me to form criteria for measuring leadership effectiveness, as well as when selecting new leadership. Much of the literature echoes these criteria and expectations and they include a capacity for innovation, collaboration, transparency, management and decision-making. The most successful deans I have observed prioritized showcasing their institutions and their faculty, rather than themselves. At one of the other panels at this conference, I heard Dean Emerita Rachel Moran speak to the dean's role as the “face of the institution” and the difficulties in controlling the narrative of one's identity once one is in a leadership role. Another experienced leader on the panel spoke to the almost necessary practice of “giving away credit” as opposed to taking credit for good things that happen. As still another experienced leader on that panel pointed out, deans do not have academic freedom in the same way faculty enjoy; deans are aligned with power, and this can be a difficult transition for faculty, accustomed to faculty leadership roles in which academic freedom principles play a significant role, to make. I started out this essay by emphasizing the commonality of leadership in academia, but further exploration of the ways in which leadership is practiced or expressed depending upon the role and status of the academic is plainly necessary to understand and better describe the qualities that make one an effective leader.

For most of us, leadership roles are more readily available at our home institutions through service on faculty senates or key institutional committees. These types of leadership roles may not bring additional compensation, but they are rewarding in other ways that may make them worthwhile to pursue. I want to share my perspective on leadership roles in the academy that do not involve formal administration, as a former chair of the University Senate, as a current chair of the institutional committee that negotiates on behalf of faculty changes to the Faculty Handbook, a document that sets forth faculty rights, responsibilities and protections and that is expressly made part of the contractual arrangements between the University and the faculty, in particular, faculty in tenure track or tenure lines. I venture these thoughts fully aware of the dramatic changes in the academy, not just the legal academy, with regards faculty, shared governance principles, and the rise in contract or contingent faculty.

Intersectionality has definitely impacted my ability to play leadership roles in my institution, both in positive ways and more challenging ways. As someone who was brought into the faculty in response to student demand for more women and specifically a latinx or Hispanic faculty, at a time when there were very few women and no Hispanics on the tenured/tenure track faculty, and at a time when it was lawful to do so, it was inescapable to have one's gender, racial or ethnic identity noted. Like Dean Emerita Moran, I found it difficult to control the narrative of my identity. I joined the law faculty as the fourth woman on the tenure track in a faculty that numbered approximately thirty (about the size we are today). There were no Hispanics, and in a city located in the deep south where African Americans were a majority, the only African American with a tenured position on the faculty was the dean. The year I joined, the faculty added two other African Americans, but it was primarily an overwhelmingly white and male faculty. Whatever identity I brought to teaching, scholarship and service work, the kind of work that this reflection addresses, was affected by how others perceived me. Whether or not my opinion on a particular subject matter differed from that of my colleagues or not, the simple fact of my difference from the norm, meant sometimes people were more open to my participation; at the same time, my view might be relegated to a “representative” view, in terms of my racial and gender identity. Resistance to stated views, moreover, might more easily be generated in response to a woman who is a Latina. One's gender and racial identity is a central part of one's identity but race and gender are not the only aspects of one's identity and perhaps not even the most defining. Other traits or experiences may in fact have had more impact on our formation than race and gender. In my case, I was forced to leave my country of birth while still young; I am a citizen of the United States but I was not born in the United States and my parents were not from the United States. The experience of being forced to leave one's native country, and learn a new life in another has had a substantial impact on my identity. In fact, it is part of the intersectionality puzzle that informs my own personal identity. There are other aspects of my experience that, again, may have played dominant roles in the formation of my identity. It is impossible to completely separate and quantify the varied, unique strands that constitute the essence of an individual.

But others reject that perspective and they may see or reduce one to the singularity of those traits. This is the essence of racism but it is also a rather typical response to individuals. Faculty who accept significant leadership roles in their institution will have to navigate these realities in the same way as deans and associate deans, but with the added advantage that this type of leadership role does not require that the individual align with the administration necessarily, and allow the faculty member to act as a spokesperson for views that may, in fact, not be aligned with those of administrators. This poses even greater challenges when those administrators are women of color. There may be expectations of unqualified support. Caucasian men are used to dealing with issues with other Caucasian men; few would expect support on issues because of their racial and gender identity. The same may not be true for women whether Caucasian or of other racial and ethnic identities.

Paradoxically, women of color playing non-administrative leadership roles may find themselves somewhat isolated at times; navigating institutional communities may earn one respect but not always friendship. Recently, a fellow colleague at my institution but in a different college who has played a similar faculty leadership role reached out to me in friendship. Taking on an institutional leadership role often demands substantial amounts of time and effort, making it difficult to devote time to building friendships but one will become a stronger, more effective leader if one is able to do so. In this sense, institutional faculty leadership roles exact a toll similar to that borne by formal administrative leaders. Leadership offers great rewards, and none as enjoyable as earned when one is successful at negotiating difficult issues that have proved divisive between the administration and faculty. But there is a cost to serving in, for the most part, uncompensated leadership roles, and it is similar to the costs that deans, associate deans and other formal academic administrative leaders bear.

Intersectionality, however, does not make one necessarily a good or effective leader. This statement is almost too obvious to express; it bears restating that other qualities and character traits may be more integral to effective leadership than one's gender and one's racial or other identity. Integrity, intelligence, openness, vision, and the ability to actualize vision and inspire others to follow that vision, are more important traits to effective leadership than gender or race. Gender and race may mean that one will be evaluated by higher, tougher standards than those applied to male colleagues, and this I am committed to opposing.

Faculty leadership affords opportunities for success and failure; but failure at faculty leadership roles is easier to navigate than failure in formal administrative roles. Thus, these opportunities offer professional growth and challenge, as well as ease in transitioning back into a full instructional role. Working on a set of challenges or problems and engaging with scholars, administrators, students and staff on generating solutions is a wonderfully fulfilling activity. The kind of faculty that are attracted to these roles tend to be engaged and engaging--they may not agree easily as to how to solve a problem, but they are working on the solution. It is difficult not to be engaged oneself, when one is surrounded by active intellectual engagement. Failure, however, is as likely as success and one has to develop the ability to deal with setbacks.

I turned to faculty leadership roles because they presented different challenges, offered opportunities to develop in different directions, and proved to be enjoyable. Institutional faculty leadership roles allow for interdisciplinary and cross-discipline engagement and interactions. This is the aspect of institutional leadership that I found most enjoyable, and it has tended to be the reason why I continue to be drawn to them.

As a member of my faculty, and in my institutional role as a faculty leader, I have initiated, developed and provided support for diversity initiatives to the extent I have been in a position to make a difference. It is perhaps easier to advocate for and express a commitment to diversity throughout the institution as a faculty leader, than as an administrator that has a more pronounced responsibility to adopt or defend the institutional policy. At the same time, faculty leaders are limited in the extent to which they can actually formulate and implement policy. Our faculty voice, nonetheless, matters and can impact the decision-making of deans and associate deans in meaningful ways. Moreover, faculty leaders function not only to help decide issues, necessarily, but to air them. In this context, simply voicing the faculty concerns in effective ways signals success.

Faculty leaders play a unique role in shared governance of institutions of higher learning. They are an integral and indispensable part of the institutional decision-making framework, with an essential role to play as visionaries, experts in their respective fields and in higher education, and in providing oversight on other institutional actors, including administrators and boards. Intersectionality creates added challenges, but those of us who have navigated successfully to positions of faculty leadership have managed to turn potential liabilities into assets. Filling these types of roles allows us to continue to enjoy teaching and scholarship, while developing personally and professionally a different set of skills in service to the institution.

I turn to our panelists now, who inform their perspectives as experienced administrative leaders.

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