Meet the Black Women Leading Illinois Law Schools

At a time when the legal profession is struggling to become more inclusive and innovative, four of Illinois’ nine law schools are led by Black women. Their dynamic paths and approaches to leadership demonstrate how legal organizations can better reflect and represent the communities they seek to serve and how leaders can shepherd and shape institutions through periods of unprecedented change.

The power of pipelines

While NALP’s 2022 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms showed that Black women comprise just 0.94% of all partners, they are receiving substantially greater leadership opportunities in law schools. According to Rosenblatt’s Deans Database (hosted by the Mississippi College School of Law), 12% of the 199 American Bar Association accredited law schools are led by Black women.

In Illinois, almost half of its law schools have a Black woman serving as dean:

Portrait of Michèle Alexandre, dean of the Corboy Law School.(Photo: Lukas Keapproth)

Michèle Alexandre — Loyola University Chicago School of Law; J.D., Harvard University Law School; Areas of Scholarship: Constitutional Law, International Law, Human Rights, and Critical Race Theory

Nicola “Nicky” Boothe — University of Illinois Chicago School of Law; J.D., Florida State University College of Law; Areas of Scholarship: Legal Professionalism and Ethics, Social Media, and Human Trafficking

Camille Davidson — Southern Illinois University School of Law; J.D., Georgetown Law; Areas of Scholarship: Policy and Practice Issues, and Legislative Reform in Health Law and Wills and Estates

Cassandra Hill — Northern Illinois University College of Law; J.D., Howard University School of Law; Areas of Scholarship: Pedagogy, Learning Theory, and Assessment in Legal Education

“This represents tremendous progress for Black women and for the legal profession,” Boothe said. “These deans have positioned themselves to be standouts through their education and scholastic endeavors and have proven their abilities to be effective and transformative leaders in law schools. Illinois has certainly embraced this recognition and benefitted by having almost half of the deans of the schools training new lawyers headed by Black women.”

Alexandre said this progress is “a testament to pipelines” and the result of Black women intentionally supporting each other through the scholarship, tenure, and leadership processes necessary to become the dean of a law school.

One pivotal pipeline Alexandre highlighted is the Lutie A. Lytle Black Women Law Faculty Workshop, which was created by Angela Onwuachi-Willig (now dean of the Boston University School of Law) in 2007 to increase Black women’s tenure rates in law schools.

According to a law review article written by Onwuachi-Willig, the Lytle Workshop was named after a Black woman who became the first female law professor in the nation and affords “diverse law faculty an unparalleled opportunity to prepare for the job market; to develop teaching and leadership skills; to hone scholarly agendas; and to workshop articles, book proposals, and ‘ideas-in-progress.’” (Angela Onwuachi-Willig, The Promise of Lutie A. Lytle: An Introduction to the Tenth Annual Commemorative Lutie A. Lytle Black Women Law Faculty Workshop Iowa Law Review Issue, 102 Iowa L. Rev. 1843 (2017).)

Hill said that “the Black women law deans who were the first to hold these positions, such as Cynthia E. Nance and Camille A. Nelson and others, didn’t rest until there were other Black women coming through the doors and assuming leadership roles. Their intentional mentorship paved the way for us to lead.”

Such intentionality might enhance the efforts of law firms struggling to retain talented Black women.

“Nothing happens by accident; it is a result of action or inaction,” Davidson said. “The legal academy has been deliberate and intentional about mentorship programs for women and people of color who are interested in law school leadership. We will need to see the same type of intentionality with respect to law firms.”

The power of community

Each of these women became dean of their respective law schools during unprecedented times of challenge and change. In July 2020, Hill became dean of NIU College of Law and Davidson became dean of SIU School of Law. Then, in the summer of 2022, Boothe became dean of UIC School of Law and Alexandre became dean of Loyola University Chicago School of Law.

“We are leading law schools during a difficult time,” Davidson said. “I started my deanship in July of 2020. This was the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and the summer that the country was reckoning with past injustices in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Today’s deans must be crisis managers as well as leaders.”

Boothe said these unique circumstances were the catalyst for heightened collaboration and community among Illinois law school deans.

“Faced with the newness of the pandemic,” Boothe explained, “everyone sought information, advice and help on how to navigate a new world. This unprecedented time highlighted the opportunity to work collaboratively with and learn from others. … Building on the strength of alliance, the brilliant community of the women deans in Illinois has been a significant source of support in my work as dean at UIC Law.”

They also have relied upon each other while navigating both the pressure and opportunity of being a “first.”

“I have found the Illinois law dean community to be most welcoming,” Hill said, “but to have three other Black women in Illinois with whom I can connect and share and solicit advice has been invaluable. All of us are fairly new to the Midwest, three of us are new to the position as permanent dean, and three of us are the first Black women deans to serve at our respective law schools. We have similar past experiences and oftentimes encounter the same challenges as we navigate these positions, our schools, and law school communities. It’s nice to know you are not completely alone.”

Illinois’ law school dean community is exceptionally diverse. DePaul University College of Law is led by Jennifer Rosato Perea, who is one of only six Hispanic or Latina law school deans in the nation. Vikram Amar is the dean of the University of Illinois College of Law and is one of only two Asian or Pacific Islander males in the nation who are leading a law school. Additionally, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and Chicago-Kent College of Law are both led by women, Hari Osofsky and Anita Krug, respectively.

Alexandre said this diversity is “allowing deeper conversations across groups” and has created a “cross-sectional impact.”

“It is not a study in contrast,” she said. “It is not just either you are a white leader, or you are a Black leader. It is all types of nuances, and I think we are learning a lot from each other.”

The power of prioritizing  

With the position of dean comes not only the aspirational power of representation but also the tactical power of priority setting and resource allocation.

Hill has embraced this role, recognizing that, “as a law dean, I am in a unique position where I can make progress in areas that might not have been on another dean’s radar” and can “greenlight and allocate resources to projects and initiatives that enhance diversity, inclusion and belonging, further social and racial justice, or bring about more equity in our community.”

As such, Hill and NIU College of Law have partnered with colleges and universities with majority-minority student populations to create diversity pipelines to law school, sought to enhance faculty diversity through recruitment efforts, started a Race and the Law Conversations series, facilitated sessions on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and “creating a community of inclusiveness” for new students, and provided faculty with training and speakers on diversity, cross-cultural competency, anti-racism, and implicit bias.

In her role as dean, Davidson has helped lead on DEI issues not only at the law school but also across the entire SIU system. Davidson co-chaired the SIU System Goals committee for anti-racism and DEI and facilitated SIU School of Law collaborations with the SIU system on diversity initiatives.

In addition to asking the faculty to “approve public anti-racism and diversity statements,” Davidson helped “establish[] pipeline programs with two HBCUs (Tougaloo College and Stillman College) and a minority-serving institution (Governor’s State University)” and held an “inaugural in-person summer diversity pipeline program for rising college juniors and seniors.”

SIU College of law also has established diversity programming through a Healing Illinois grant and has an ADEI (Anti-Racism, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) committee comprised of faculty, staff, and students who “strategically outline and execute diversity initiatives.”

As UIC Law was recently named one of the country’s most diverse law schools, Boothe said she, along with the rest of the faculty and staff, is committed to maintaining and amplifying the policies and programs which fostered this diversity, whether it be through curriculum, faculty training, admissions, hiring, or scholarship.

At the beginning of this academic year, Boothe also shared guiding principles called A.B.C.s—Academic Achievement, Belonging and Communication—for ensuring student success. To cultivate a greater sense of belonging among its law students, Boothe said UIC Law has enhanced its DEI programing and this year’s return to campus “has afforded us opportunities for increased community building activities and opportunities to be intentional about a sense of belonging (inclusion) in an equitable environment that celebrates our rich diversity.”

Alexandre at Loyola Law Chicago said that she and Tania Luma, the assistant dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion, are committed to effectuating the goals and priorities set forth in the recently issued 2018—2022 Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Report.

Additionally, Alexandre said that she and other faculty members empower the law school’s public interest programs and initiatives (including Street Law and the Curt and Linda Rodin Center for Social Justice) and seek to equip students—through scholarship, teaching, and clinics–to pursue social justice careers.

But Alexandre said she is still learning what it means to bring justice and wholeness to a person.

“Our commitment as a Jesuit institution is to care for the whole person,” Alexandre said. “That means that I cannot presume to know how to do justice in this very moment because we are in a very dynamic period, and our country is learning in real time what it means to grow and evolve into better versions of ourselves. I think the best and most humble part of being a leader is to understand that I’m part of the learning too. So, every day, I come to work asking how I can be of use. How can I further that work in a meaningful way by listening and by understanding how the moment presents opportunity for more growth … more for the institution and for myself.”

The power of well-being

Leading a law school can be demanding and all-encompassing, even in the absence of a pandemic, political division, or social unrest. Boothe therefore said she practices mindfulness to help her focus on each day’s tasks.

“Taking a mere few minutes each day to ground myself in the present and acknowledge and appreciate all that is happening in the moment has significantly increased my ability to perform under otherwise stress-inducing circumstances,” she said.

Boothe also schedules time to exercise, attend doctor’s appointments, or “just to be,” recognizing that “if I don’t take care of myself, I will not be able to fulfill my responsibilities to my students, the faculty, staff or alumni.”

Hill prioritizes her well-being by making time to connect with her family, friends, and colleagues.

“Relationships are essential for a healthy well-being,” she said. “Being home for the holidays with my family, as well as taking time to break bread with my fellow sister law deans, has been restorative.”

Running and meditation are the disciplines Alexandre credits for maintaining her well-being. Alexandre said she has been running for 30 years and developing a meditation practice for six years.

“It reinforces what I tell my students, that the best way to be of help, the best way to develop compassion, and to serve justice, is to be at peace in yourself,” she said.

“God, family, and work are prioritized in that order” for Davidson. She said she takes time to exercise and meditate and pray, is mindful of what she eats, and allows herself to laugh.

Notably, last semester, she invited students, faculty, and staff to join her each week for a “wellness walk with the dean.”

“At lunchtime we took a leisurely walk around the campus lake,” she said. “It was a wonderful time to connect with students and colleagues and breathe some fresh air.”

The power of representation

Ultimately, these deans hope their success and visibility, along with some of Illinois’ other “firsts,” will inspire others to follow in their footsteps.

“Representation matters,” Davidson said. “Illinois has two Black women on the Supreme Court and four Black women law deans. Although Black women are not a monolithic group, there is a shared experience. The visibility of each of us should inspire others to enter the profession.”

While Hill believes “progress can be slow at times,” she said progress is indeed happening. “Without Black women or people of color in these decision-making positions, we might not have any progress at all.”

For Boothe, the leadership roles Black women have attained in Illinois’ law schools “perhaps signify a recognition by law schools that in addition to strong teaching, and scholarly backgrounds, effective deans oftentimes have strong sought-after leadership skills including cross-cultural interpersonal skills, empathy, commitment to equity and fairness, and a knack for innovation and problem-solving: skills that are oftentimes inherent in black women leaders.”

Alexandre hopes that when students see Black women leading in the fullness of all who they are, without sacrificing any aspect of their identity, it demonstrates that “you can be whoever you want to be, whoever you are called to be, and make the impact you want, and be what you don’t see.”

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