A Push for Progress: New UCI Law School Dean Breaks Barriers in the World of Academia

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UCI prides itself often on being diverse and progressive. Last year, we qualified as a Hispanic-serving institution in addition to already being an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander serving institution. In addition, it has made strides in hiring female staff members. Thanks to a grant secured in 2001, the university has set up a system to raise the number of women faculty members. In the early 1990s, according to the UCI news page, women used to only make up 24 percent of workers, but by 2014 it had risen to 34 percent. While still significantly less than men, this percent jump was well above those of other UCs.

UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman has released statements declaring that UCI serves as an engine of social mobility, empowering all for a brilliant future. This seems to be the case even more recently, when as of Jan. 1, L. Song Richardson, a woman of African-American and Korean heritage, officially became the Dean of UCI’s law school. This appointment has become monumental due to the fact that she is now the only woman legal scholar of color to lead a top-30 law school.

While this significant appointment speaks to UCI’s continued commitment to supporting diversity within our school, it speaks even louder to the growing push for diversity in higher education nationwide. This year, an astounding eleven women were named deans of law schools across the country. Yale Law School announced last February its first female dean of law Heather Gerken, and UCLA selected Jennifer Mnookin to succeed their already female dean of law Rachel Moran. The fact that eleven out of twenty-eight new deans named this summer were female has led many news outlets to call it “The Year of the Female Dean.”

However, while the total number of female deans at the nation’s law schools has jumped to 30 percent overall from 21 percent in 2008, there still remains a huge gap of diversity within these women chosen. Richardson was the only woman of color selected out of the eleven women to be a dean of law. In this way, she is trailblazing not only for UCI but for the entire country. Having attended both Yale and Harvard for her college education and served as senior associate dean of academic affairs, she is qualified and celebrated as she takes this position on.

But the fact that a highly qualified professional is being promoted should not be so monumental in and of itself. Richardson’s appointment instead has come to demonstrate how few women of color have been recognized and promoted within the world of higher education. The National Center of Education Statistics found that in 2015, 42 percent of full time faculty at schools of higher education were white males, with 35 percent being white females and the remaining 33 percent being people of color. A sliver of those percentages represented women of color in higher education. While it is a celebration for our school to continue to support those who are often marginalized throughout the country, it is a reminder that we have so much more work to do to see everybody who is qualified be represented in the higher educational system.

The time when being a white man was a qualification for success in academics is over, but that doesn’t mean success doesn’t come harder to those who don’t fit that narrative. Rethinking what a successful professional looks like will take work from universities nationwide. But for now, here’s to celebrating Richardson as she takes on her appointment and changes the academic world one day at a time.

Claire Harvey is a third-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at cpharvey@uci.edu.

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