Meet the first African-American dean at UC College of Law

By April 29, 2019 Uncategorized

Originally Posted on

By Elizabeth Schmitt

Two years ago, Verna Williams stepped up as interim dean for the University of Cincinnati College of Law after her predecessor, Jennifer Bard, was dismissed.

A faculty member since 2001, Williams co-directs UC’s joint-degree program in law and women’s studies. She is also the college’s first African-American dean.

“I thought that being the dean was the worst job at the college,” Williams said. “But once I started doing this job on an interim basis, I was really struck by how quickly I really enjoyed it.”

Soon, Williams found herself solving problems and collaborating with others at the college, using skills she learned as an attorney several years earlier.

Educating the next generation of lawyers is more than equipping students to pass the bar, she said. It’s about the people they will go on to help.

“I can think of so many situations in which people didn’t have adequate representation,” Williams said. “I think about criminal cases where people don’t have lawyers, or they have a public defender who’s representing 300 people … then I think about people who are confronting evictions or who may lose their children under the neglect system.”

Fighting for rights and justice has been a long road for Williams, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Georgetown University in 1982.

“I just wanted to do something that would matter,” Williams said, admitting that she did not know what she wanted to do after she received her undergraduate degree. Eventually, she entered a CBS affiliate training program before working as a paralegal for several years.

“I was afraid of law school,” Williams said. “I went ahead and applied to law school because I got the sense that getting a law degree could open up lot of doors for me in a lot of different areas — not necessarily just to be in the courtroom.”

Williams earned her law degree in 1988 from Harvard Law School, where she met and became lifelong friends with Michelle Obama. Obama would later ask Williams to help her document a history of the family’s experience in the White House.

Verna said she was drawn to Cincinnati because the College of Law embraces a similar commitment to women and families to what she experienced while working at the National Women’s Law Center. Williams also said she appreciates the small, urban-school atmosphere the College of Law provides.

“I think this is a real forward-thinking institution that is focused on our students and helping them succeed in the profession,” Williams said. “The goal of the profession is serving the public, and in important ways, [lawyers] are guardians of democracy.”

Williams said the college has already been a place for innovation in the past 40 years, starting with the Urban Morgan Institution of Human Rights — the first human-rights institute to be endowed at a law school.

“We have the same issues as big cities, but because the city is smaller, we can access them more easily.” Williams said. She wants to take that focus and apply it to opportunities available to law students building upon externships, co-ops, and research experiences.

“I’m encouraged by the fact that this generation seems to be focused on social justice, and they want to make a change.” Williams said. “I think there are going to be so many different ways in which your generation impacts the nation and the world.

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