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Excerpted From: Jennifer Rosato Perea, Reflections on Eleven Years as a Latina Dean (Emphasis Added), 23 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Social Change 58 (2020) (42 Footnotes) (Full Document)


JenniferRosatoPereaIn August 2006, I became a law school dean for the first time. Since then, I have served as a law dean for a total of eleven years at three different law schools. As I begin my twelfth year, I find myself as one of the longest-serving deans in the country: in the top twenty out of approximately 200, and serving significantly longer than the average term for law deans (3.74 years).

But I am not just one of the most experienced deans. Back in 2006, I was the first Latina law dean in the country when I was appointed acting dean at a brand new law school in Philadelphia during its first year of operation. And fast forward to 2019, I believe that I am one of only three Latina deans in the country.

For most of this time l have felt like a “reluctant pioneer,” wanting to deny my existence as a first/only/token/oddity/exotic/unicorn. I have just wanted to be a good dean with a life-long passion to help make law schools and legal education better. Yet, as the years go by, I have recognized that it is being a “Latina” dean that provides me with the unique perspective I bring to every decision I make, meeting I attend, initiative I lead, speech I give, or hire I authorize. I now embrace that perspective.

For this essay, I will reflect on how I seek to help train the next truly diverse generation of lawyers--with more humility, passion, focus, and maturity than I had thirteen years ago--and in a way that is authentically grounded in my background and experiences. These thematic reflections are: “It's (Still) Lonely at the Top”; “My 'Latina’ Voice is My Superpower”; and “Leading With Optimism.”

[. . .]

Being one of only a few Latina deans in 2019 is disappointing but not surprising. Although Latinx students comprise roughly 14% of the law student population, Latinx lawyers comprise only 6% of all lawyers; roughly 2.5% of associates; and less than one percent of partners at law firms. Latina lawyers still only constitute 1.7% of all lawyers.

What this statistic translates into on a daily basis is that--for a Latina leader in law--many times you are still the only one like you in the room. There is still a dearth of mentors who share your experiences and who you can trust to confide in or who can give you a needed reality check (to affirm “yes, that person was undermining you” or “no, that person does not talkto the white male deans that way”). Although the leadership ranks are diversifying slowly, there are still few people at your level who “get you.” So first, isolation means feeling lonely more often than not.

Second, the isolation also allows slights to be made and go unchecked. They are minor but still occur with some frequency. When my last name is mispronounced, my appearance is commented on, or I am lectured about how to solve a problem as if I had started deaning yesterday--in the past I often just smiled, ignored the slight, and moved on to the problem that needed solving. Confronting these slights on my own has seemed daunting and not worth the effort.

Third, the isolation also feels like added pressure to represent “my people” every day, rather than being evaluated by my own individual strengths and weaknesses. I am conscious of not creating a negative impression about Latina leaders in what I do and say, as it not only will affect how people think of me, but also what they think of other Latina leaders in the future. For example, I am conscious about how I dress each morning, making sure that I do not dress “too Latina” (daily checklist: are my heels too high, my dress too tight, my cleavage showing, or my nails or lipstick too bright?). I am conscious of my tone in every interaction (not too edgy, not too emotional). Although this self-monitoring is still commonplace for women leaders, it is exacerbated by not wanting to reinforce negative stereotypes of Latinas as too emotional, too angry, or too sexy variations of the “fiery Latina.” I am also aware of not doing too much office “housework” (e.g., planning events, bringing food, cleaning up) to avoid being too easily relegated to a Latina “maid” or “mama” stereotype.

This type of experience was documented ten years ago in a 2009 study entitled “Few and Far Between: The Reality of Latina Lawyers.” At that time, Latinas constituted 1.3% of U.S. lawyers. The study documented the lack of role models for Latina lawyers; the isolation; the tokenism and need to represent all Latinas; the pervasive gender and cultural stereotypes, including being “too passive” or “fiery”; and the perception that Latinas are less qualified than other lawyers.

Although the experiences of Latinas may be similar to ten years ago, it feels a little more comfortable because there area few more of us around the table and, as we gain experience, we are more willing to speak our minds even if we are the only ones in the room. The room also feels more comfortable because of the existence of a growing literature that affirms our experiences. I feel better knowing that sometimes the insecurity that I feel is called “stereotype threat;” that the slights are called “microaggressions;” that the patronizing remarks and interruptions I experience are called “prove-it-again” or “presumed incompetence”; and that the pressure to conform to accepted behaviors for a woman leader is called “tightrope bias.” And they all are reflections and by-products of larger institutional racism and sexism.

This identification and labeling makes me feel less alone and affirms my feelings about and reactions to the world I navigate. If I can understand what I am thinking and feeling, I can label it for what it is, put it in its place, and make a choice as to how to respond. That process, in and of itself, lessens the isolation and helps to better identify the structural/institutional barriers that would interfere with equality.

[. . .]

Recently the actress and activist America Ferrera declared in a powerful TedTalk that “My identity is my superpower.” That theme--and her experience coming to terms with her full, authentic self as a Latina--really spoke to me. Like Ms. Ferrera, I have come to believe that my unique perspective and experience as a Latina makes me a better dean. This “full, authentic voice” is my superpower.

I feel the force of that superpower in different ways at different times. Most visibly, when I speak to a group of high school or college students (usually from underrepresented populations) about my experience growing up, they nod and smile knowingly at my story and tell me how much it means to them that I am a dean and I look like them. And the more I open up about my life, the more responsive these young women (and men) have become.

My story is my own, but has aspects that many students of color and first-generation students can relate to. I was born to a Nicaraguan mother and an Italian-American father. I often was asked to take on the role of translator/advocate for my mother and “Abuelita,” who helped care for me and my brother while my mom worked as a bookkeeper and my dad as a steelworker. In grade school, I remember being asked “where I came from” with derisive curiosity (including having to show my classmates on a map in the front of the room). I tried to rub off my dark freckles with lemon juice during the summer when they emerged like dark constellations all over my face. Growing up, I cringed as my mother was shamed for her accent and her brownness in stores, airports, the doctor's office, and at work.

Beyond telling my story, I have amplified my voice by mentoring students and lawyers of color, and by being actively involved in pipeline programs for underrepresented minorities at the law school and for college students. I also give presentations regularly on implicit bias and diversity and inclusion issues, and in those presentations share my values while infusing my own experiences and background.

Overall, I understand that there will be many times where my Latina voice makes a difference and my superpower will be a force for good in the universe I inhabit: it will raise an idea that no one thought of, will identify a creative way to move forward, will suggest communication that is more respectful or sensitive, or will dispel a stereotype. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in a different context, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.”

On the shadow side, my “Latina-ness” sometimes is like Kryptonite, a powerful explosive that--when it comes too close--could weaken me. As a Latina dean (or any leader of color), more is expected than just being a good dean. Like other deans of color, we are expected to protect the interests of our affinity group(s), and it never feels like enough. When we are acting as good deans--which often means trying to balance a variety of interests and solve difficult problems within confined processes--members of our affinity group(s) can express disappointment, frustration, or even a sense of betrayal when we are not more powerful advocates of the group's views.

These are the most difficult moments that I have experienced as a dean. Over time I have defused this Kryptonite by understanding that all feelings and perspectives need to be respected and listened to, but in the end my role as dean is to reach the right decision for the right reasons, with humility and thoughtfulness. And, on balance, it is better to be working within an institution in a position of influence, even if one's power is limited. We are called to serve as change agents in different ways--inside and outside of our institutions--and all of it matters in improving the world for people of color.

[. . .]

All over my office suite I have signs of positivity: a “Powered by Optimism” bumper sticker on the bulletin board, cocktail table books on happiness and gratitude, and a bouquet of fresh flowers. Some days those symbols allow me to practice optimism, but most of the time they serve to reaffirm the hope that I feel about my law school, legal education, and diversity, inclusion, and equity in the legal profession.

Specifically, I am hopeful that there will be more deans of color (and women deans of color) who will add to the richness of their institutions and legal education as a whole. This year, the national press took note of the increase in deans of color, with headlines such as “Incoming Batch of Law Deans is More Diverse than Ever” and “More Minority Women Ascend to Law Dean Jobs.”

I think that this trend will continue for a number of different reasons:

- The job of law school dean has changed significantly since the economic crisis and downturn in the legal market/admissions, requiring deans who have a broad skill set including emotional intelligence, grit, crisis management, strategic planning, and collaborative problem-solving. As a result, law schools need to look beyond experienced deans (most of whom are not looking for a subsequent deanship) and professors/associate deans with strong academic pedigrees. The recent hiring of a diverse cohort of deans suggests that law schools are recognizing this need, and I hope that trend will continue. We need their breadth of experience and perspectives now more than ever.

- There is more deliberate succession planning for deaning and resources for underrepresented groups to become deans, such as the Promoting Diversity in Law School Leadership Workshop, now being offered on an annual basis.

- As more diverse law deans join the ranks, they will mentor and encourage others. As we have already learned, making progress in diversity requires us to encourage and support each other, and lift each other up in myriad ways.

And as we join the ranks of law school deans in greater numbers, with our own distinctive voices, our very presence is a “debiaser” as it helps reduce the implicit bias that continues to impede diversity efforts. As studies confirm, contact with someone in a counter-stereotypical role diminishes bias and, more generally, greater representation of underrepresented groups improves greater participation of those groups in the future.

[. . .]

In 2012, I wrote, “While I love being a dean, I reluctantly accept my role as a 'pioneer’ Latina dean.” In 2019, I embrace it wholeheartedly--as it gives me the freedom to be who I am as a person and as a leader. I can decide to address the microaggressions when they come, with humor or directly (as an “ouch”), as I now understand the harm in not addressing them. I can dress like myself in a sheath dress with colorful heels or sneakers, rather than a dark suit.

More importantly, empowering myself will help empower others. As Toni Morrison said: “I tell my students, 'When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”’ For the remainder of my time as dean, my job will be to empower the next generation of students, teachers and future deans.

Dean and Professor of Law, DePaul University College of Law.

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