Reinventing Howard’s Law School
Dean Alice Gresham Bullock is determined to keep the nation’s oldest historically Black law school relevant to 21st century realities.
By Gwendolyn Glenn
When Alice Gresham Bullock was named dean of the Howard University School of Law in 1997, beating out candidates such as Harvard University’s Charles Ogletree, not everyone was pleased. Some expressed dismay that the university would pass up more prestigious legal minds for someone with a less well-known legal reputation. Three years later, Bullock has a new library, a renovated campus and improved faculty relations to her credit. Now, the former tax attorney is focused on what some anticipate will be her greatest challenge: restoring Howard to its previous stature as a leader in civil rights law.
For generations after its founding in 1869, Howard University School of Law had produced some of the nation’s finest and most respected legal minds. Charles Hamilton Houston, a 1922 graduate of Harvard Law School who was dean of Howard’s law school from 1930-35, was the first African American to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Later, it was a Howard University team, led by James M. Nabrit, George E.C. Hayes and Thurgood Marshall, that shepherded the fight in Brown v. Board of Education.
“The first civil rights course taught in law schools in the U.S. was formulated by Howard’s James Nabrit,” Bullock says. “We have his handwritten notes on that course. Clearly there’s enough work to be done in civil rights, and we have to continue to maintain superior faculty and make sure our students get jobs on Main Street, Wall Street and State Street. That’s our pitch.”
Despite this stellar past, Howard’s law school has struggled in recent years with sagging enrollment and lackluster bar exam passage rates of its students. From a high of 152 students in 1995, the law school’s first-year enrollment dropped to 128 in 1998. The decline is attributed, in part, to staffing shortages in the admissions office, which existed during Bullock’s first term and affected recruiting efforts. Later, the admissions committee, in consultation with the president, decided to resist the temptation to choose quantity over quality.
The first-year enrollment of 141 in 2000 pleases Bullock, who says that it is important for Howard to remain small and selective. The law school received more than 1,300 applications for first-year slots last year. Total enrollment at the law school this term is 392 students and 60 percent are female.
The school’s bar passage rates, however, are another matter. In 1999, 67 percent of Howard’s law school graduates passed the bar overall, which is slightly higher than the national average passage rate for African American law school graduates (64.4 percent). According to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, in 1999, the overall bar passage rate for all test takers was 66 percent. Although Howard’s rates are above the national average, the school’s law graduates take the bar exam in as many as 35 states each year, and it is Bullock’s goal to bring the passage rate of her graduates up to the average rates for whatever state in which they take the test.
“The passage rate goes up when our students take the exam the second time around, but that’s not good enough,” Bullock says. “I’m saying they have to pass the first time.”
Making a difference
When Bullock says she wants to reinvent the law school program, she does not mean starting from scratch with the curriculum or simply adding new courses. Many of the courses needed to give the law school a more activist role in the legal field are already in place. She would like to see the activity that takes place in the classroom applied to the real world by students and faculty.
For example, Bullock would like to see students in the school’s criminal justice clinical program not simply litigating misdemeanor cases before the D.C. Court of Appeals, but also focusing on ways to prevent crimes. This draws on Howard’s mission of attracting not just the best and brightest, but those students who want to contribute to social change.
“We will restructure so some students will represent misdemeanor cases and have others working with groups in the community to prevent crimes and to reduce recidivism when people are convicted,” the dean says. “I also want to create a civil rights clinic … where we’d take on cases that will make a difference in setting precedents and in actually making law in the area of civil rights.”
Restructuring the law school is Bullock’s response to the dramatic changes taking place in the legal field. She points to the gradual shift away from litigation as a preference for alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and mediation methods, largely because of an overloaded court system. ADR clinics are a relatively new concept for law schools, and major institutions are developing programs that teach mediation techniques.
“Few law programs have ADR clinics, and we want to be one of the first,” Bullock says. Howard’s ADR clinic will start operating in 2002. “That’s where the profession is headed and we have to be on the cutting edge of that and training our students so they can be effective when they graduate. I also want us to find ways to link students and faculty with civil rights organizations out on the front lines. Now that there is no ‘civil rights movement,’ there’s no training ground for students to learn what the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Congressman John Lewis, (D-Ga.), and others learned as part of SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference).”
Staying connected to the minority community and being active in legal issues that affect minorities are areas that Bullock wants to keep at the forefront of education for Howard’s law students.
Atlanta-based education consultant Dr. Herman Reese agrees with Bullock that African American law students should want to have an impact on society.
“Some of our legal minds need to get beyond just getting a degree and get more involved in environmental law and technology-related issues,” says Reese, who produced the international Afrocentric Conferences in Atlanta and has worked closely with HBCUs for decades.
“There is still a need for thoroughly trained African American legal minds that are sensitive to issues that affect minorities and poor people, and the HBCU law schools play a major role in pushing that agenda forward,” says Reese.
This is one of the main reasons Bullock turned down a position as a tax attorney/litigator with the U.S. Attorneys Office in Washington in 1979. Instead, she opted for a career in academia and became an assistant law professor at Howard that same year. “I have no regrets. I love what I do and my career has been phenomenal here,” she says.
Longtime Howard law professor Isiah Leggett graduated from the law school in 1974 and served as assistant dean of the law school from 1975-1986. He says Bullock has redefined the role of the law school.
“She’s strengthened our (alliances) with associations like the NAACP, NBA (National Bar Association) and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund,” says Leggett. “She’s reaffirmed our mission. In the past, we moved away from the public eye and the impact cases we took. We drifted from our traditional contacts, and she’s done a great job of re-establishing lines of communication with those involved in the legal issues affecting the minority community.”
Bullock was appointed interim dean in 1996 and one year later was named dean of the law school by H. Patrick Swygert, also a Howard law graduate (’68), who had been named president of the university the year before.
“She was the best candidate for the position, and I am pleased with the job that she is doing as dean,” Swygert says. “I am impressed with Bullock’s commitment and vision to ensure recruitment of the highest caliber students, faculty and staff, to advance and promote leading-edge scholarship and to strengthen the law school’s role in the national discourse on legal and social issues. She brings to the law school the right combination of legal expertise, scholarship and professional experience needed.”
Swygert and Bullock’s most impressive achievement will officially open this spring — the law school’s new library. The state-of-the-art facility supports legal research and instruction in a four-story, 76,000 square-foot building that will accommodate 215,000 volumes, 90 open carrels and seating for more than 295 students. Completely wired for technology, the library also features a reading room and audiovisual facilities.
The new library should be an asset for Howard as it prepares for increased competition from rival institutions that will soon include the new Florida A&M College of Law, scheduled to open in 2003 (see related story, pg. 27). Bullock hopes to be able to sweeten Howard’s offers to students through funds she is raising in a $1 million campaign that targets alumni. For contributions of $500 and $1,000, alumni can have their names etched on the bricks that will pave the entrance to the new
library. The funds will be used to help students pay for the expensive bar review test.
“The test costs over $2,000, and a lot of African Americans don’t take it because they have lots of debt — they take the bar without the prep test,” she says. “It’s suicidal to take the bar without the prep.” Already, in the last six months the campaign has raised $750,000.
Bullock also is committed to the retention of current students. Her efforts include assisting them with financial and other needs that can cause students to drop out.
Another of Howard’s recruitment pitches is its 97 percent placement rate for graduates. The national average is 87 percent, according to the law school. Additionally, according to the American Lawyer, Howard ranks 27th out of more than 160 law schools in terms of where the country’s top 100 legal firms go to hire entry level attorneys.
Clerkships, which are prestigious positions among new graduates, have increased for Howard from 12 percent in 1998 to 21 percent in 2000. The growth is, in part, attributable to a clerkship committee, which Bullock established to help students find clerkships.
“This is a big push for us,” Bullock says. “I want to show that our graduates can compete with any law graduates in the country.”
Students recognize the accomplishments Bullock is making on their behalf. Most describe her as approachable, personable and extremely enthusiastic about her job. They say they feel that the law school now has a definite strategy in place for the school’s future.
“This dean is committed to the school and committed to working on student issues,” says Opio Sokoni, a third-year law student and editor in chief of the school’s New Barrister newspaper. “She eats, sleeps and breathes Howard law school.”
Third-year military law major Patricia Corey, who is president of the Howard University Student Bar Association, is impressed that Bullock is succeeding in a position that historically has been held by men.
She’s doing a great job in a field dominated by men,” Corey says. “I can look up to her if I want to be a dean in the future.”
Unifying the Faculty
Leggett and other faculty members who commend the changes Bullock has implemented at the law school also credit the energetic dean with unifying the faculty. When she took over as dean, there was a great deal of tension between junior and senior law professors.
Patricia M. Worthy, associate law professor and a 1968 graduate of the law school, has taught at Howard for 22 years and says, in the past, the faculty did not work together as colleagues who shared information and ideas.
“We didn’t encourage each other to publish and we didn’t review each other’s research drafts,” Worthy says. “Having your work critiqued by colleagues is critical to research, but we weren’t doing that and we weren’t growing as we should.”
Bullock describes the faculty at that time as “dysfunctional and polarized.”
“I spent my first year literally holding hands because they didn’t trust or talk to each other, but they talked to me,” Bullock says.
To pull the entire law school community together, she organized a two-day retreat last summer for 60 of the school’s professors, administrators, staffers, alumni and students to look at past accomplishments of the law school, identify current problems in the department and map out solutions for the future. A majority of the law school’s professors attended the retreat.
“As long as I’ve been here — 25 years — that was the most frank and open forum on the law school with all of the players present,” Leggett says. “The dean was at the center of all of this. To conduct that kind of discussion, where you also open yourself up to scrutiny, good and bad, you have to be a confident leader and someone willing to make changes.”
Bullock says she’s willing to put herself out there for the good of the law school. “We can’t move forward unless we all examine our faults,” she says. Bullock’s team-oriented management style is what faculty members now say has led to a more open department and increased collaborative research and publishing on the part of faculty members.
“We’ve come a long way to fuse as a faculty and that is solely the work of Alice,” says Worthy. “Now we’re in each other’s offices sharing ideas, and it’s such a pleasure.”
But not all faculty have a glowing assessment of the law school and its leadership.
Dawn V. Martin, who was a visiting professor at the law school from 1996-1998, is currently in litigation with Howard University (Martin vs. Howard University, et al.), alleging sexual harassment/hostile work environment, five counts of retaliation for protesting sexual harassment and breach of contract.
Martin, who was stalked by a non-employee known to target female professors, says after repeatedly notifying law school officials, no measures were taken to prevent the harassment nor was the larger law school community notified or warned about the man who on at least three occasions, according to Martin, personally visited her office. In addition, Martin, who left a tenure-track position at Cleveland State University’s Marshall College of Law to take the visiting professorship at Howard, says she was promised that the position would turn into a tenure-track position. However, in December 1997 she was told that her contract would not be renewed.
Martin says she thoroughly enjoyed teaching at Howard and was shocked that things ultimately turned out as they did.
“I would love to go back to Howard,” Martin told Black Issues. “I loved my students, and they loved me.”
Bullock told Black Issues that she was not able to comment on the lawsuit as it is still in litigation.
Succeeding is a Must
While some faculty and students praise Bullock for the work she’s done in her short tenure as dean, she praises Howard for giving her the education and the opportunity.
“If I’d gone to any other law school, I don’t think I’d have had a chance to be a dean,” Bullock says. “I don’t think that I could have walked away with the confidence to be a dean, especially since I’d seen no one that looked like me as a dean or professor.”
In addition to crediting Howard for her career success, Bullock points to her family and the way she was raised in the small rural community of Keysville, Ga., as being significant to her professional achievements. Both of Bullock’s parents had a high school education. Her mother was a cafeteria worker and her father was a farmer. Her father was the inspiration behind her decision to specialize in tax law when she went to law school.
“I became a tax lawyer due to my dad’s tax problems,” says Bullock. “We were poor and I could not understand why he had tax problems. The irony of it is that my dad died when he was 82 without ever letting me do his taxes. He bragged to others about me, and I was getting paid $300 an hour to do other people’s tax planning, but my dad always took his taxes to H&R Block.”
Bullock and her six siblings attended a prestigious African American private school in Augusta, Ga., where the importance of giving back to the community and confidence was instilled in them.
“I grew up in a community where family and neighbors looked out for you and everybody had high expectations for the children in my generation…. When you come out of an environment like that, you feel that there are no limitations and I felt that there was nothing that I couldn’t do.”
Today, Bullock is inspired by the legacy she has inherited from previous deans such as Charles Hamilton Houston and Judge Henry Hastings whose portraits hang over her desk. She remembers how she felt the first time she sat in the dean’s chair.
“It was like they said ‘You’re expected to do the best that you can in the interest of the students and you have a legacy to carry on.’ It was a tremendous responsibility I felt when I thought of those shoes that I’d be filling — a sense of awe and a sense of their spirit. That legacy helps me do this job daily with a sense of mission, optimism, enthusiasm and a sense of humor — which is absolutely necessary.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com