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Dean Camille A. Nelson: Connecting WCL’s History to Its Future

By Jeffery Leon

March 1, 2017

Dean Camille A. Nelson, WCLCamille A. Nelson was appointed dean of American University Washington College of Law (WCL) on July 25, 2016, becoming the first woman to lead the law school since 1947. Previously, Nelson served as dean of Suffolk University Law School in Boston. The D.C. Bar spoke with Nelson about her motivations, ambitions, and challenges in her new position as the law school marks its 121st founding anniversary. Below are excerpts from the interview.

Listening to Learn and Moving Forward Together
Words are one thing, but words followed by action are what count, otherwise words can be hollow. So for me, it's important that we go forward acting in concert. I'm only going to be effective if the community works with me. Recent events have shown us that while one person can make a difference, coalitions are important for moving forward and having momentum, whether in the political, business, or educational spheres. A lot of what I'm trying to do is hear multiple voices—and listen to learn—which is different from listening to respond.

In terms of my ethos, I think of myself as a leader among leaders. I think there's a bit of a progressive bent behind that notion of inclusivity, but I also think that's good business sense. Law schools, whether we like it or not, are businesses, but not-for-profits, which adds important dimensions. We have to be more business-minded in how best to serve our students, and there must be an imbedded sense of demand and supply. But how best to serve our students is the question that can be answered only when we bring more people to the table who are interacting with our students, be it in the cafeteria, in the classroom, in the library, in the commons, in our office spaces, in student services, in the profession—everywhere.

Leading From Behind and Celebrating Achievements
Nelson Mandela had a great quote that I will paraphrase: It's better to lead from behind and celebrate the work and accomplishments of others. But when there's a crisis, a leader steps to the front to deal with it. An interesting aspect of the work that I see here is that there's so much going on. So I am trying to tease out the synergies, and to celebrate and push to the fore the work that is already being done in this very robust community.

As you might appreciate, at a school of this size—the sixth largest school in the country—there are moments when we aren't able to fully appreciate what everyone is doing because everyone is doing so much. It is an incredibly dynamic place! We want our students, alumni, faculty, and staff to appreciate this richness, the prescient conversations taking place, as well as how impactful and relevant the work of community members continues to be.

One of the things we're working on is communications, internally as well as externally. Moving forward, we will focus on showcasing the talent and work that's being done at WCL . . . to make sure that it is recognized and appreciated. We are a law school with excellence that is far reaching in both the national and international space, and we will highlight that fact more intentionally.

Keeping Pace With Technology
One of the things I find interesting is how we increasingly use technology in more facets of our lives. Given the prevalence of technology in both communications and branding, going forward we will be doing more deliberate work with social media from the dean's office and from the rest of our administration. We are trying to make sure that we're sharing relevant information about our community's relevance and vibrancy.

I think we need to get into this space that is rapidly innovating, because this space is where our students are—they have an enviable ease and facility with technology. It sounds basic, but clearly we also have work to do on our website. So there's the forward-facing question of how do we articulate who we are to the world in social media and online. . . . That initial question of what is this school about—what [does it] have to offer—needs to be clear when someone goes to our website, for example. It needs to be up to date, navigable, interactive, and visually captivating to keep people engaged with us.

Engaging the Alumni Community
We have over 20,000 alumni, and they are all over the world. Therefore, a part of the work we are doing with intentionality is trying to reach out to our alumni more, and to talk about their successes as well, because our students need to know them. Sometimes when you're slogging through your course work it can be so challenging that one questions oneself. It's uplifting to know that there have been others like you who have come before, who also worked hard, and who came out the other side with success.

Our alumni are professionals in every sector—they are practicing, they are in the business world, in nonprofits, they are consultants, they are in the judiciary, in education, with NGOs, and the government. So we have to be in conversation with [them] to strengthen the professional opportunities of our students. Ultimately, we want our alumni to know that they are a crucial part of our community, that we need them, and that our students look to them as a significant part of what WCL has to offer.

Taking Pride in Excellence and Human Capital
We are in D.C. We are American University Washington College of Law. This is an exceptional law school community to be a part of at this moment. Our course offerings and faculty excellence connect directly with the issues of the day, as well as those legal questions that are percolating both nationally and internationally. Our excellence spans domestic law and international law, both public and private. We have a strong law and government program, nationally ranked programs in intellectual property, experiential and clinical legal education, trial advocacy, and international public and private law, as well as a highly ranked evening program.

Our new legal campus is state of the art. The new buildings are incredible, but more importantly, they house brilliant people who care, and that's key.. . . Our faculty are prolific scholars, but there are also exceptional teachers. Our students, therefore, have access to leading scholars, educators, practitioners, and judges in a way that's not always prevalent in other schools. So students who want to be mentored, and who want to be in conversation with faculty, are best served by an institution like ours that takes the notion of teacher–scholars seriously.

Taking Diversity to the Next Level—Empowerment
We've been heralded in the National Jurist as one of the most diverse schools in the country for quite some time. Moving beyond diversity to the next step, we take inclusion very seriously. For me, the next goal beyond inclusion is empowerment. That's why I keep saying that we are educating the next generation of leaders. This bespeaks empowerment.

Weaving WCL's History Into Its Path Forward
I think the starting point for this school is extraordinary. I don't think any school, including ours, can rest on its laurels, though. Many schools will proclaim their origin story—and we can legitimately celebrate ours—but I think the more profound question is, where do we go from here? I think we have a compelling historical springboard. The larger question is, how do we connect with that story of inclusion and exclusion today? How do we interweave that narrative to say this is where we're going now at the dawn of the 21st century? Our origin story gives us some marching orders with respect to inclusion, recognition of talent in those traditionally outside of the legal mainstream, and empowerment.