One year ago, Jennifer Rosato Perea joined DePaul as dean for the College of Law. A renowned scholar in family law, bioethics, and civil procedure, Perea is also one of only two Latina law school deans in the United States. Here she talks about her first-year impressions and achievements.

What did you expect to find at DePaul? 

Well, I knew of the university’s reputation for excellence in legal education, and I’ve found that excellence to be even broader and more distinctive than I’d expected.

I also came to DePaul because of its mission and—again—reality has exceeded my expectations. Sometimes an organization will claim one thing, but when you look under the surface, the values aren’t quite there. That’s not true at DePaul: Values of community and devotion to students are real and deeply embedded. So, those discoveries made my transition easy.

But, as in any organization, improvements can be made to help it achieve its potential. I’ve spent the past year focused on coordination, communication, and collaboration—not just within the law school, but also between the law school and other colleges; not just inside DePaul, but also with alumni and the city of Chicago. That’s what we’ve been working on this year, and that’s what we will be working on in the future.  

How do “coordination, communication, and collaboration” show up in initiatives?

One great example within the law school has been our crafting of a strategic plan—that was a new, deliberative, and thoughtful process that brought together faculty, staff, and alumni. We’ve defined who we are now and who we want to become in the next three to five years—that’s a huge accomplishment. In the not-so-distant past, a law school, including ours, could afford to grow in many different ways because resources and revenue were plentiful. But now we need to be more focused and strategic: We have to embrace our identity, leverage our strengths, and identify our markets.

Thinking strategically means thinking in new ways about student success. Our innovative programs—such as 3YP, which gives students the opportunity to spend their third year immersed in the practice of law, and P2P, Preparing to Practice, which is making our students more marketable right from the start of their first year—are on the cutting edge in legal education. Innovation is necessary to our sustainability, and even more than that: It’s what we owe our students. Our graduates need to know how to think like lawyers, as they always have; but we also need to make sure they’re skilled in other ways, such as writing in a variety of contexts, working with diverse clients, and possessing business knowledge.

At the university level, we’re doing quite a bit of collaborating. For example, the 3+3 program, which is going through the formal approval process right now, will allow DePaul students to get a bachelor’s and law degree in six years instead of seven—that will be hugely beneficial to students. And we’re working with the business school and CDM to find ways to expand on DePaul’s recognized leadership in both entrepreneurial studies and information technology. 

We have been, and continue to be, Chicago’s law school: I think we can own that. And it starts with leveraging our alumni network, which includes more than 10,000 lawyers in the Chicago area, working in politics and public service, in businesses, and in law firms, large and small. We’re inviting alumni to work with students in various programs; we’re introducing alumni to new graduates; and we’re starting an alumni engagement council.

How important is diversity in a law school?

It needs to be part of everything we do for two reasons.

One, multiple perspectives bring richness to any conversation. When different voices are in the room—whether that’s a room full of students, or faculty, or administrators—more ideas surface, more learning takes place, and better decisions are made.

Two, diversity is basic fairness. Too many people have been deprived of opportunity in the past, and that just can’t continue in today’s society. At DePaul, a commitment to diversity in legal education is a proud part of our history, and it continues today, as embodied by our students who show respect for one another and pride in each other’s successes.

Among my peers, I’d like to see more diversity. There are more than 200 law deans in the United States: Only two are Latinas and only a bit more than 20 percent are women, even though women have made up 45 to 50 percent of the law school faculty population for a while. It seems as if we’ve reached a certain point, and now we’re plateauing. Why aren’t we seeing a little bit more of an upward climb for women and minorities? I don’t have the answer, but it’s a question worth asking.

The law school also cares a lot about having an impact on the diverse populations in Chicago. Again, we don’t just say it: We do it. Our students devote an exceptional amount of time to public service. And they continue to give, as volunteers, after they’ve started their careers. I think that DePaul really nurtures the identity of a “servant leader”—of having a servant’s heart. What could be better than that?