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Step forward for Yale Law School

(Courtesy Yale Law School)

(Courtesy Yale Law School)

Yale opened its doors to female undergraduates in 1969. In 1970, Anne Coffin Hanson became the first woman to join the Yale faculty. Sylvia Ardyn Boone became the first African American woman to receive tenure at Yale in 1979. And now, in 2013, a woman, Cristina Rodriguez, PC ’95, LAW ’00 will become the first Hispanic tenured professor at the Yale Law School.

Rudy Aragon, LAW ’79, has been working towards this goal since he was a student at YLS. At the time, Aragon, along with his classmate, now-Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, LAW ’79, founded the Latino Asian Native American Law Students’ Association (LANA) to advocate for affirmative action and to encourage professors to address the issue of diversity within the faculty. Since graduating, Aragon has continued to rally YLS, writing letters and meeting with deans and current tenured faculty. As students, Aragon and Sotomayor felt the need to create a multiracial advocacy group because the school required all student organizations to have a minimum of 10 students, and there were not enough Latinos, Asians, or Native Americans to form individual student organizations by specific ethnicity. Aragon said he was unsure whether they were successful in their efforts to promote diversity, especially among the faculty. “Maybe there wasn’t a professor out there qualified; I find that hard to believe though,” he said. If somebody had told me that we were going out to recruit the best Hispanics to come to Yale Law School, that would have made me feel a lot better.”

During Aragon and Sotomayor’s time as students, the YLS faculty included one African American associate professor who was not granted tenure and two female professors, only one of whom was granted tenure. The American Bar Association reported that, in spring 2011, the tenured faculty at the Law School consisted of 50 men, 14 women, and eight professors of minority background.

The data indicates that progress has been made, and Dean of Yale Law School Robert Post, LAW ‘77, maintains that the law school faculty is diverse. But students and Rodriguez herself argue there is still room to diversify: “There’s still a long way to go until we reach a place where we don’t even think about it,” Rodriguez said.

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Rodriguez was born and raised in South Texas. Her parents emphasized education throughout her childhood. Rodriguez came to Yale in 1991 and graduated with a degree in history in 1995. She went on to study modern history as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford before returning to Yale in 1998 for her JD.

During her second semester at YLS, Rodriguez began to realize she would rather go into academia than practice law. She credits this desire to the intellectual culture of the law school for encouraging students to consider academia over practice. Following graduation, she clerked for the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court before settling at NYU Law School, where she worked for eight years and was granted tenure in 2008. For the past two years, while on leave from NYU, she has been practicing law working for the Office of Legal Counsel in D.C. Part of the Department of Justice, the office advises the executive branch on the legality of its actions. She was also a visiting professor at YLS in fall 2009, when she taught “Immigration Law and Policy,” a 40-person lecture.

Rodriguez is currently a leading scholar on immigration law. She has always been interested in Constitutional and administrative law and the structure of government, and she said she finds immigration law to be the perfect public law path. “You’re engaged in Constitutional interpretation, statutory interpretations, and thinking about how government agencies implement the laws. That the type of law that makes up immigration law coincided with my more general interests made it a natural fit,” she said.

Rodriguez will begin at Yale in the coming fall by teaching a small group of roughly 16 first-year law students in addition to lecturing. She settled back into New Haven on Monday, but will spend much of the semester in Toronto, as the Genet Global Visiting Fellow at the Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. She said she hopes to use this time to transition from practicing law back into an academic mindset.

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Dean Post first announced Rodriguez’s appointment during a February 2012 town hall meeting about the school’s hiring process, run entirely by tenured law professors. Each faculty member reads extensively on any candidate, taking into account research and recommendations. In a two to three hour faculty meeting, the faculty then deliberates until a two-thirds majority is reached. Professor Heather Gerken, who chaired the faculty committee that offered tenure to Rodriguez, described the process as rigorous and deliberative: “People leave meetings feeling better about their colleagues rather than worse because it’s so genuinely intellectual and deliberative. You really have to admire the way [your colleagues] assess and think about the candidates,” she said. “That’s a gift.”

The process is rooted in tradition, but recently, students have been clamoring for more of a say. Gerken said that student input is encouraged and highly valued during the deliberation process, in particular student reviews: “Our students are special. They’re ridiculously smart, and you really have to be on the top of your game to teach them under any circumstance,” she said. “So in some ways, the teaching check is to figure out if the faculty member is good enough to teach our students.” Students, echoing the aims of Aragon and Sotomayor, have been pushing to broaden diversity among the faculty. Gerken added that the current student body is more diverse than its faculty, an imbalance that she believes to be common among top-tier law schools. Carel Alé, LAW ’11, who now works at the prestigious law firm Skadden Arps, partook in the Student-Faculty Hiring Committee, an unofficial student group that focuses on ways to get students more involved in the hiring process. Currently, the students’ voice is limited to professor evaluations. Alé said that the faculty was open to finding a way to open student input in the hiring process, but she isn’t sure what that role would actually look like yet.

Aragon, who is the executive partner for diversity at White Case, a New York-based law firm, believes that by mentoring younger students, those in senior positions further the development of any institution. In other words, the further evolution of the law school depends on professors who will not only educate but also help guide students.

Aragon said that the lack of minority professors who could act as possible mentors did not detract from his experience as a student, because he didn’t feel that he needed them. Similarly, Rodriguez said she never felt that there was a lack of role models or mentors, although there were no Hispanic professors and few women. She did, however, agree that maximizing the faculty’s diversity would enrich minority students’ experiences: “It is significant to reach a point where you have people who represent all different kinds of backgrounds and life experiences,” she said. “I think it’s meaningful to a lot of students.”

Vivianne Scott, LAW ’14, current president of the Yale Black Law Students Association, agreed that, overall, she has had an excellent experience with the law school’s professors, that she could count the number of professors who have left her dissatisfied on one hand. Yet she also believes that professors of similar race and socio-economic status to her could further enrich her experience. Scott said she has had difficulty finding professors invested in her academic goals and eager to build a personal connection with her. Furthermore, many of the professors who readily engage with their students are universally sought after, making it difficult to create those personal connections. Scott hopes to seek out Rodriguez as a possible mentor and is sure other minority students feel the same.

Alé was able to take Rodriguez’s immigration law class as a student at Yale. According to her, Rodriguez was a dynamic, intelligent, engaging lecturer. She was also wiling to take the time to get to know her students as individuals, not only scholars. Alé was effusive: “I honestly couldn’t say enough wonderful things about her,” she said. “I think it’s an amazing thing that she’s coming to the law school, and I only wish I could be there to take her courses.”

For YLS, this moment is a long time coming. Aragon and Justice Sotomayor began the campaign over 40 years ago. Some in the press have chosen to take this opportunity to criticize the law school for not having appointed a Hispanic professor earlier, and they might be right. Still, Rodriguez’s arrival marks a step forward for the University.