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.