Despite a longstanding appreciation for education, Alex Acosta was initially uncertain what career move most appealed to him following the election of President Obama. After all, he was clearly positioned to join, if he wanted to, any one of many prestigious law firms as an influential partner, having become a budding superstar in law and politics through high-profile jobs as a Republican appointee.
Instead, Acosta parlayed his numerous connections into boosting opportunities for students rather than for himself. As Florida International University law dean since July 2009, he has helped graduates secure jobs in a sputtering economy and simultaneously raised public and industry awareness of an emerging law school that will celebrate 10 years next year.
“I love the students,” says Acosta, a Harvard Law School graduate who was formerly U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida and the first Hispanic to serve as an assistant attorney general in Washington, D.C., where he headed the Justice Department’s civil rights division. “The faculty is tremendously supportive, and I absolutely made the right choice coming here.”
Acosta and his predecessor, Leonard Strickman, who remains on faculty, have battled the shrinking job market by expanding FIU career services to make more counselors available and by inviting more practitioners to campus to meet students. Acosta has designated one school staff member as director of externships, rather than combining this role with others, meaning more students are placed in offices such as county attorney and public defender while those offices grow familiar with the FIU law school brand.
Acosta has not hesitated to personally call upon some of the many attorneys, judges and agency officials he knew in his pre-FIU years to ask them to seriously consider his students for clerkships, summer associate positions and full-time jobs.
In law school halls, he has quickly cultivated a reputation as a kind of den father who welcomes students to his office on short notice to help them polish résumés and hone interviewing skills.
“If the dean does this, it signals to the rest of the law school what the priority is,” says Acosta, who taught as an adjunct at George Mason University’s law school and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Jr. when he served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Ethnic minorities made up 59 percent of school enrollment last fall, one of the highest ratios nationally. The fact that 88 percent of 2010 graduates were employed in the legal profession within nine months after graduation is not lost upon FIU provost Dr. Douglas Wartzok, who calls Acosta “an excellent leader and strategic thinker who provides a clear vision.”
Meanwhile, Acosta has increased travel funds for faculty to attend conferences, which further advances scholarship and promotes FIU. Also, the entering class was scaled back by one-third to 170 students last fall to better ensure personalized teaching and learning environments.
Such low-key actions contrast with the headline-grabbing aspects of some of Acosta’s previous jobs. As assistant attorney general, he re-opened the investigation into the murder of Emmett Till; as U.S. Attorney, his prosecutors won historic cases such as that against lobbyist Jack Abramoff on fraud charges.
Nonetheless, education holds a soft spot within Acosta, whose mother, a legal assistant and mortgage title closer, and salesman father worked hard to finance their son’s schooling. “My mother worked 40 years without attending college herself,” he says. “It definitely sensitized me to the value of education.”