The Deaning of Our Law Schools

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We as a community have come a long way in 100 years. In 1902, Takuji Yamashita graduated from the University of Washington Law School but could not practice law because he could not become a U.S. citizen and therefore could not be admitted to the bar. In 2004, not only have many of us become citizens, lawyers, judges and even law professors, but now three of the nation’s 187 law schools approved by the American Bar Association have announced that they will be headed by Asian Pacific American deans next fall.

Law schools are often one of the most lucrative units of any university, because, unlike science and medical programs, they have low overhead costs, relatively high student-faculty ratios and graduates who will move into relatively high-paying jobs (so their alumni donations have the potential to be higher).

While APAs have served as assistant deans in many law schools — and while Wallace Loh served as the first APA law school dean at the University of Washington from 1990 to 1995 — watching three APAs climb to the top of their respective law school communities at the same time is a moment to savor. After all, a mere 150 years ago, Chief Justice Murray noted with horror in the California Supreme Court case of People v. Hall that APAs were “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point, as their history has shown.”

While each of these three deans has worked hard and deserves his honor on his own merits, it is important to remember that a necessary precondition of their rise was the civil rights struggle that broke down the barriers to legal education for APAs and other minorities. Thousands of us have become lawyers, many in the last 30 years, and several hundred have become law professors. Seeing them perform capably in the courts and classrooms of America has paved the way for three law school communities to envision themselves being represented by APA deans.

Also, not by coincidence, these three law schools have student bodies that are between 15 and 25 percent non-white, and significant numbers of minorities and women are members of their faculties. The efforts undertaken by many of us over the years to diversify campuses have finally yielded fruit at the chief executive level.

Allen Easley will become president and dean of the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., starting July 1, after serving for 25 years as a law professor and, later, as associate dean at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kan. A product of the innovative legal programs at Temple University School of Law in Philadelphia, Easley has been a role model and mentor to many junior APA law professors.

Also on July 1, Harold Hongju Koh will become the 15th dean of Yale Law School in New Haven, Conn. Like Easley, Koh has a long track record of public service and outstanding credentials. In addition, however, he has something that almost no law school dean of any background has: a mother, father and sister who also have taught at his law school.

Koh’s parents, Hesung Chun and Kwang Lim Koh, taught an East Asian Law and Society seminar at Yale Law School from 1964 to 1966, one of the first courses that brought Asia into American law schools. His sister, Jean Koh Peters, has been a tenured member of the Yale faculty and a leader in the field of child advocacy law since 1986.

Frank Wu, well-known to the readers of AsianWeek as a stellar columnist for many years, will move from his current job as a member of the Howard University School of Law faculty to the deanship of Wayne State University Law School in Detroit on July 15. Wu is widely known as the author of Yellow, a highly praised treatise on how the black-white model of race relations in this country must be updated to include APAs.

Like Easley and Koh, Wu has taken the time to mentor many APA law students and junior colleagues. We as a community are indeed lucky to have three such accomplished and community-minded law professors ascending to the deanships of their respective schools this July.

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