Dean Limelight: Penelope Andrews, Albany Law School


Penelope Andrews, president of Albany Law School of Union University, moved into legal academia in the mid-1980s because of both identity and circumstance: She was a black woman from South Africa, at Columbia Law on a student visa and completing her degree during the height of apartheid.

“The South African government had declared a state of emergency,” Andrews said in a telephone interview. “Despite a job offer, I couldn’t get a green ALBANY ANDREWScard and I feared that I’d be arrested if I returned home. Happily, a Columbia law professor suggested I teach in a law school somewhere in the British Commonwealth.”

She walked into her first teaching assignments at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, and so began the passion she calls a career.

“I love, love, love working with students, engaging with them, mentoring them,” said Andrews, who’s stepping down as Albany Law’s president at the end of this academic year. “Plus there’s the privilege of intellectual inquiry – of teaching what you love and doing research within a community of scholars. Academia allows me to marry everything I’m passionate about – teaching, scholarship, advocacy – in a different combination with a new set of students every year.”

With a B.A. and LL.B. from the University of Natal, Durban, South Africa, and an LL.M. from Columbia, Andrews has taught at law schools in Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland and South Africa along with the United States, where she has been tenured at four schools. She’s won a bevy of honors along the way, including the Albany Business Review’s Women Who Mean Business Award, Albany Law’s Kate Stoneman Award, South Africa’s Women of Achievement Award, and the Haywood Burns/Shanara Gilbert Award.

Before coming to Albany Law, Andrews was associate dean for academic affairs and a professor of law at City University of New York School of Law (CUNY). She had also been a law professor and director of international studies at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana, where she taught torts, public international law, international human rights law and international criminal law.

Andrews’ experience in legal education includes participating in and chairing accreditation site teams for the American Bar Association’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. The experience, she said, has given her a solid and broad background against which to evaluate Albany Law’s curriculum and evolving strategic plan.

But the milestones of her tenure at Albany Law, the ones she cites in conversation, revolve around students. Among these are partnerships with institutions in the region to strengthen and expand educational offerings, and thus career paths, in law and technology, law and finance, law and health. She’s also worked to increase alumni engagement and giving in the form of scholarships; started a “Pathways to the Profession” program to enhance students’ employment prospects, focused on the legal needs of veterans, and highlighted the legal services demands of small communities with a Rural Legal Project.

“If I could create a bumper sticker for my car,” Andrews said, “it would read Student-Centric.’

LAWDRAGON: Why did you say yes to Albany Law as your first deanship?

PENELOPE ANDREWS: I was the Stoneman Endowed Visiting Professor in Law and Democracy here in 2002. Teaching two courses and engaging with the students, faculty, administration and staff, I really got a sense of Albany, the law school and region. I very much liked what I saw: devoted alumni, wonderful students, a quality faculty and staff, and an area with a vibrant network of lawyers and institutions in all areas of practice, including emerging areas such as nanotechnology and health.

When I thought about actually being dean for the first time – that was when Albany Law’s other attributes became patently clear: It’s a small, independent law school; indeed, at age 162 it’s the oldest independent law school in the United States. That meant the environment would be more manageable for me as a neophyte dean. I would also have a greater opportunity to learn from longtime members of the administration, faculty and staff.

LD: You have such an avowed love of teaching, why aspire to be a dean?

PA: Years ago, when I held a joint appointment with Valparaiso Law School and La Trobe University in Australia, someone called and asked if I wanted to be in a pool for dean of a U.S. law school. Funnily enough, at the time I thought being dean was a very grown-up job and I wasn’t sure if I was ready for it.

Over the next three or so years, the joint appointment with the attendant commute became more exhausting, so I stopped. CUNY was looking for an associate dean for academic affairs. I liked CUNY, liked the idea of going back to live in New York City, and thought that the job would give me a feel for being a law school administrator.

I soon realized that I could more effectively work to improve an institution and assist many more of its constituents. I found that I enjoyed both the possibilities and the responsibilities of that kind of role. 

LD: Why leave Albany Law now instead of renewing your contract?

PA: Law schools are facing unprecedented challenges. Coming here I realized there were a few things that I could do to help ensure that Albany Law meets those challenges in innovative ways that benefit its students – my primary concern.

But actually working to generate a strategic plan and entertaining a new institutional affiliation with the State University of New York at Albany, along with running the institution, initiating new programs, working with the law school community on issues such as the shifting job market or bar passage rates, and putting out the fires that invariably come along – it meant missing out on the research, scholarship, advocacy and daily interaction with students that I dearly value.

It also meant keeping on hold my involvement with South Africa and pursuing global social justice advocacy – the reason I became a lawyer in the first place and something I’ve focused on throughout my academic career.

By leaving now, I’m leaving the law school in very good hands, the acting dean being Professor Alicia Ouellette, previously associate dean for academic affairs and intellectual life. She’s a graduate of the law school and someone who enjoys the trust and confidence of trustees, faculty members, the staff and students .

I’m also leaving the school in a very good place. Albany had been engaged in strategic planning for some time. But the actual drafting of a plan and getting all the stakeholders involved took place when I came on board. We started seriously and with the purpose of making the plan actionable now. That was important, since the challenges facing the school today weren’t very apparent five years ago, when the planning started.

I saw these challenges as opportunities to create consensus around new priorities, a new vision and mission that align with what we believe lawyers should be and the kind of education and educational experiences that will equip our graduates to become the very best in their fields.

When I came on board, I wanted the law school to strengthen and reinforce the considerable advantages of its location and legacy. By location, I mean the New York State Capital Region, which offers our students an entrepreneurial environment and a wealth of interdisciplinary opportunities involving, for example, medicine and nanotechnology.

Given our location, it’s easy for me – or for us at Albany Law – to think of 21st century lawyers as being part entrepreneurs, as we answer that fundamental question: How do we equip graduates for law practice in a 21st century marked by rapid technological and economic change and globalization?

I think law graduates need the skills for a traditional law practice, especially given the numbers of people who have little or no access to lawyers and the judicial system; the skills to understand, master and appropriately use technology to their benefit and that of their clients; and the skills to function as entrepreneurs in a fundamental way – identifying and seizing opportunities.

By legacy I’m referring to Albany Law being the nation’s oldest independent law school, one of only six law schools to have produced a U.S. president and two U.S. Supreme Court justices, including Robert H. Jackson, the lead prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. The first woman to be admitted to law practice in New York state, Kate Stoneman, was an Albany Law graduate. I’m referring, too, to our tradition and history of incorporating ethics and critical thinking in all that we teach and do. This legacy, I believe, positions us to be a leader in thinking deeply and broadly about the future of law in terms of its practice, its interdisciplinary and collaborative nature, diversity within the field and access to justice.

I also knew that our small size means we can be agile and flexible in whatever we decide or undertake.

As far as a new affiliation with the University at Albany, we’re only in the beginning stages of the process. That is, to use the analogy of romance, we flirted; we’ll continue courting; and maybe we will get engaged and even marry. We already have some joint programs and may be able to enjoy a short-term sharing of resources.

I’ve also been able to put in place a few special programs of my own. Even though I’ve emphasized that Albany Law is grounded in the Capital Region as a strong regional school, as at CUNY, I’ve also underscored the importance of a global perspective on law by generating student internships with judges in South Africa and Australia along with internships in public interest law there as well as in Ireland, India, Ghana, Uganda and elsewhere. I’ve helped raise money for fellowships that allow students to volunteer globally.

And I instituted a Dean’s Book Series, bringing in authors who have written on law-related subjects – Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law, for example, who wrote about affirmative action, Ruthann Robson of CUNY Law School, the talented constitutional scholar, and German jurist and writer Bernhard Schlink, who recently published a short-story collection Summer Lies. I’ve encouraged students to choose an author and work with me on their own writing as an independent study project.

The Dean’s Book Series is also my way of making Albany Law more of a resource for the community that attracts people from outside the law school, including those who are not involved with the law.

LD: The strategic plan and the university affiliation – are these the major challenges for the acting dean?

PA: Ensuring that the aspirations and goals of the strategic plan are met and ensuring that the affiliation, if it happens, does so in a way that benefits all constituents, including students, and strengthens the law school – these are obviously two challenges for the acting dean. So is reinforcing the sense of trust with the faculty in these challenging times and ensuring that the Albany Law community as a whole deals in a thoughtful and intelligent manner with the new realities facing all law schools.

The most important challenge, however, may be to ensure that students who walk in the door have a transformative experience here at Albany Law, an experience that will be of demonstrable value to them such that they see themselves when they leave as engaged alumni.

LD: What do you wish you had known before becoming dean?

PA: I wish that I had understood more clearly – and better appreciated – the slow pace of change in academic institutions. I had attributed such a pace in large institutions, such as CUNY, to mere size. I didn’t realize that it applies across the board primarily because there are so many moving parts, so many people – faculty, trustees, staff, alumni, students – legitimately interested in the school’s health and future.

One must be mindful of that slow pace. For me, on reflection, it’s been a valuable education. I’ve spent most of my life in motion. I’ve lived in four countries. I’ve been very open to change; I’ve had to be, growing up in South Africa, teaching in a variety of law schools, moving among continents and parts of the U.S. I’ve also become accustomed to it, living as I have in places such as New York City, where rapid change is the normal resting heartbeat.

What I’ve learned is that change isn’t the default position for all or even most people and organizations.

I also better respect the risk that Albany Law took in bringing me in as dean during a time of institutional change. The added risk comes from choosing an outsider as dean instead of someone from within. An insider brings a level of trust and familiarity and institutional knowledge that an outsider simply can’t.

LD: Has anything surprised you as dean?

PA: I didn’t realize that as dean you speak with a megaphone. Off-the-cuff comments can be readily perceived as being of great consequence.

I believe that I have always been mindful of people’s sensibilities and I’ve treated people with respect. I am more acutely aware of that now. I’ve respected, too, the requirements in a dean of caution and confidentiality. But I’m a candid person, my candidness having a cultural component. I was educated by nuns, so I’m a bit more stoic, a bit tougher than some and I have a relatively thick skin. I’ve often resorted to humor as part of my engagement and communication with people. I’ve had to balance the reality of the dean’s megaphone against my own inclination to be open and to laugh.

That’s something else that has surprised me – and saddens me a bit. In South Africa, we laughed often during some dark times. When I’m with friends and colleagues there, we still do; I’m not talking about laughing at other people’s expense or making light of serious situations. I’m talking about never taking ourselves too seriously. For some in legal academe, humor is treated with a degree of suspicion, and that’s a shame.

LD: What distinguishes your institution from other law schools?

PA: Let’s begin with the fact of our location in this great state capital and Capital Region. We have so many externship opportunities as a result. Students who come here have great opportunities to have practice experience early in their careers. Witness our semester-in-practice program, through which students may spend a semester working in Albany or in Washington for credit. That’s just one component of our experiential education program.

Albany Law offers an unusual range of joint programs and interdisciplinary opportunities. Law and health, for example, allows our students to be in the same classroom as health and medical professionals. Combining law and the study of nanotechnology, our students share classes with engineering and business students.

In addition, some of the leading scholars and practitioners of New York law teach at Albany Law. They regularly provide continuing education credit for practitioners in the Capital Region and beyond, and are actively involved with local and state bar associations.

Albany Law faculty members are genuinely concerned about and involved with the students in advancing their education and their careers. Albany Law prides itself on having faculty members who are passionate about teaching and many are committed to producing cutting-edge scholarship.

Our alumni are amazing in their commitment to the school, both regionally and nationally. They are very engaged with the law school and gladly network on behalf of students here to help nurture students’ careers.

We also have certain material advantages over other institutions in that we have a beautiful campus, easily accessible to downtown Albany, where the cost of living is lower than in large cities – New York City, for example.

Finally, we have a formal advising and mentoring program, starting in a student’s first year. Each student, from the time that he or she enters the building, has someone actively involved in that student’s educational success and career building.

LD: Are you seeing trends in the jobs your students take after graduation?

PA: Yes. Albany law has always had significant numbers of graduates going into law practice or government. The trend here, as at some other law schools, I’m sure, is for that portion of students, those jobs appear to be shrinking. By contrast, more students are going into the world of finance, the world of compliance and regulation, the world of in-house counsel. The specific practice areas that are growing in popularity include health care, intellectual property and finance.   There are a growing number of students who are interested in pursuing innovative entrepreneurial opportunities.

LD: What do you do outside the law school when you’re not being dean?

PA: I love traveling. I have this thing about finding out where the next place is, that off-the-beaten-path place where few have gone. At the same time, I love opera, theater and music – and here in the Capital Region, we have the wonderful Albany Symphony, along with the Palace Theater, Proctor’s and other cultural offerings.

Good thing that I love food, too, since I spend a lot of time attending lunches, dinners, food-centered events. Everywhere I go, I explore restaurants, markets and the like.

One other small confession: If I wasn’t a legal academic, I’d like to be a standup comedian. I haven’t tried it publicly; for now, I think of it as right up there on my bucket list.

Contact Margot Slade at (914) 396-4248 or