From the Perspective of Dean Jennifer Rosato

Only the second Latina law school dean in the nation, Jennifer Rosato stresses the importance of being proactive and visible in the Hispanic community

With nearly 40 percent of its full-time faculty from minority groups, Northern Illinois University’s law school is consistently ranked as one of the most diverse in the country. Diversity and inclusion are top priorities for its dean, Jennifer Rosato. Photo by Sheila Barabad.

“I found my passion for doing hands-on work with vulnerable populations back in college at Cornell University, where I studied social work as an undergraduate. That’s when it hit me that many of the problems I witnessed were rooted in structural and legal issues. Though my original passion for social work shaped my life’s mission, I decided I could make more of a difference pursuing law.

In law school at the University of Pennsylvania, I didn’t concentrate my studies to only one area. I set out to take advantage of every opportunity and learn as much as I could. At the start of my career, I practiced various areas of law, which taught me how to make informed decisions and use good judgment.

A few years after graduating from law school, I taught legal writing at Villanova University’s law school, and eventually expanded to include a diverse course load as a law professor at Brooklyn Law School. I found working with students to be inspiring, and beyond that, felt a responsibility to my law school community to make an impact. At Brooklyn Law School, I tried on various hats but eventually transitioned into associate dean of student affairs, where I found my stride. I loved contributing to the education and personal growth of so many different people. Because Brooklyn is an independent law school, I was able to master the details of a variety of student needs, such as financial aid, health services, and housing. Not a lot of law professors have that opportunity.

In 2005 I joined the founding team of Drexel University School of Law and became the associate dean of student affairs there. By serendipity, I served as the acting dean in the first year of the school’s existence. Building a law school from the onset proved to be extremely challenging. There were weeks I worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Fortunately, we had a great team in place and a wonderful founding faculty, so my efforts always felt supported.

When a permanent dean was hired at Drexel, I felt the desire to continue utilizing my skills to make a lasting impact at another law school. I was hired as dean of Northern Illinois University (NIU) in 2009. I was thrilled to be at a school where I could immerse myself, get involved, and really make a difference. The law school at NIU, like other law schools, resembles a mini university integrated within a larger institution. We have our own admissions process, career services, public relations, and IT support. I’m able to keep my hands in a lot of projects at once.

At NIU Law, I am focusing my efforts on three priorities: I’m expanding experiential learning opportunities for faculty and students, building collaborations in the community, and committing to enhancing student success. Enhancing student success can be achieved by improving our bar-pass and job-placement rates, while finding new ways to keep the program affordable. I also serve as a resource expert and frequently speak and create presentations on issues such as diversity and implicit bias.

As a minority leader, I’m in a powerful position to be an advocate for Latinos coming into the field of law. I’m one of only four Latina deans in the country, and I believe I have a responsibility to defy stereotypes while educating others about the harm of structural racism. It’s important to be a role model and maintain a visible profile that others can emulate. I mentor young Latino and Latina faculty, meet individually with students, and work collaboratively with Latino organizations. I don’t want anyone in the NIU community to feel as isolated as I did in my first years as a Latina student and professor.

As a leader, I try to be transparent and honest with all constituencies. I make sure I’m accessible, and my door is always open. I harness my energy into figuring out what gifts, talents, and skills other people have and bringing out the best in them.

Effectuating change that is long-lasting and transformational is a challenge for us all. It takes a lot of buy-in and support to improve institutions and change hearts and minds. The most rewarding part of my job is seeing that change happen.

I had 20 years of training going into being an effective dean. Today, nothing surprises me or feels like an unsolvable problem. I always remind myself that being a dean is primarily a service position. You have to be a mentor and a role model, but you are also responsible for taking care of all business factions. Part of being a leader is finding a balance. Ultimately, I want NIU Law to be recognized for its core values of community, responsibility, diversity, access, and experiential learning.”