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July 12, 2023 Feature Article

Minority Lawyers Contribute to the Swelling Number College and University Presidents with JDs

Patricia E Salkin, JD, PhD, Author | Azuka Dike, Editor
Patricia E Salkin, JD, PhD

Patricia E Salkin, JD, PhD

Touro University; Senior Vice President, Academic Affairs; Provost, Graduate and Professional Divisions

On March 1, 2023 when Bates College announced Minnesota Law Dean Gary W. Jenkins as its next, and first Black President, Jenkins joined a growing list of Black and Hispanic lawyers being appointed as president of a college or university. Howard Law Dean Danielle Ren Holley was named as the next President, and first Black woman, of Mount Holyoke College one month earlier, and in January seasoned higher education administrator and attorney Bonita Brown was named interim President of Northern Kentucky University. 

While lawyers make up less than 10% of college and university presidents, at HBCUs today, they account for about 20% of the presidents. Between the 2000s and the 2010s, the number of presidents at HBCUs that were lawyers quadrupled. Minority lawyers are being appointed today as campus leaders across the country. According to the 2017 ACE Study on the Presidency, only 17% of all College Presidents are racial minorities, with 8% being Black or African American. The next ACE survey is likely to show an increase. 

Civil Rights activist John Mercer Langston (1829-97) was the first African American lawyer to serve as a president of a university. Between 1848 and the 1860s, Langston was an important organizer and orator in the black civil rights movement in Ohio and across the North, an activist on the underground railroad, and prior to the Civil War he was one of the most prominent African Americans in the United States. In 1873, Langston was tapped as Vice President and Acting President of Howard University, after having organized and established the University’s Law Department in 1869 where he was the first African American appointed to the law faculty, and the first law dean. Although he applied for the presidency in 1875, the trustees at Howard University dismissed his candidacy, which was believed to be on racial grounds and also likely due to his non-membership in an evangelical church. Langston resigned after his dismissal. In 1886, Langston was named president of the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now known as Virginia State University), a Historically Black College and University. 

After earning his J.D. at Howard University School of Law, H. Patrick Swygert worked in Washington, D.C. for Rep. Charles Rangel. He joined Temple University Law School where he taught and served as acting dean before leaving to work as Counsel to the U.S. Civil Service Commission. Two years later he returned to Temple University as special counsel to the President and as a law professor where he also served as vice president for the Temple University administration and executive vice president. Swygert was appointed as President of the University at Albany in 1990, leaving soon thereafter in 1995 to become the 15th President of Howard University. Swygert clerked for Chief Judge William H. Hastie of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He also served as a special assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, and worked as an associate at Debevoise, Plimpton, Lyons & Gates in New York City.

Karol V. Mason was appointed as the first woman and the first minority president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2017. Following graduation from the University of Michigan Law School, Mason clerked for the Hon. John F. Grady in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. She then joined the international law firm of Alston & Bird, LLP rising from Associate to Partner, Chair of the Public Finance Group, and Chair of the firm’s Management Committee. Mason was the firm’s first black female partner. She left the firm for a few years beginning in 2009 (to 2012) to serve as the Deputy Associate Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice where she oversaw the Office of Justice Programs, the Office of Violence Against Women, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, Community Relations Services, and the Tax Division. Nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Karol Mason was appointed as Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs (2013-2017).

At the Hispanic serving New Jersey City University, 37-year-old lawyer Andres Acebo was recently appointed as interim-president. He previously served as interim chief of staff and secretary to the board in 2021, and later served as interim President of New Jersey City University (NJCU) in 2023. Acebo also served as assistant university counsel, and most recently as Executive Vice President and University Counsel before being elevated to the presidency. He is the youngest known president to ever lead a public university in the State of New Jersey.

The first new lawyer president of 2023 was New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas who was appointed president of Northern New Mexico College. In 2006 when Balderas was elected as State Auditor of New Mexico, he was the youngest Hispanic elected to a statewide office. A graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Law, Balderas has had a distinguished career in public service that includes two terms as the New Mexico State Auditor, more than two years in the New Mexico House of Representatives, and service as an Assistant District Attorney for Bernalillo County.

On December 5, 2022, the State University of New York appointed lawyer John King as their next Chancellor. From 2011 to 2015 Chancellor King served as the first African American and Puerto Rican education commissioner for the State of New York. He left New York in 2015 to become deputy secretary of education in the Obama administration, and a year later was appointed as the U.S. Secretary of Education. He is currently serving as the President of The Education Trust. In 2011, King was appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, to serve in the U.S. Department of Education's Equity and Excellence Commission.

As higher education continues to diversify its leadership ranks, more inspired leadership from minority presidents is expected – providing more role models for students, faculty and staff who aspire to leadership roles. These voices in campus leadership will also impact not just campus policies but will add to the future development of state and national higher education policy.

Patricia E Salkin, JD, PhD

Senior Vice President, Academic Affairs; Provost, Graduate and Professional Divisions

Touro University

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