Eboni S. Nelson joined UConn as dean of the School of Law on July 31, 2020. Her appointment was announced in March, after a nationwide search to find a successor to Dean Timothy Fisher, who is stepping down to join the faculty. Nelson comes to UConn from the University of South Carolina School of Law, where she has served as associate dean for academic affairs since 2018. She is a graduate of Wake Forest University and Harvard Law School. She recently sat down to talk about what brought her to UConn Law and her plans and priorities as dean.
Q. Why did you choose legal education as a career?
Very early on in my career as a practicing attorney, I found myself discontented and longing to be more impactful and helpful. So I thought back to the activities that had brought me happiness and fulfillment in law school, and they were serving as a tutor for 1L students and as a Contracts teaching assistant for then professor, now senator, Elizabeth Warren. I joined the legal academy in 2003 because I love to help students achieve their professional and personal goals. My many interactions with students over the years have been incredibly rewarding, and I very much look forward to continuing those interactions with students at UConn Law. A career in legal education also allows me to engage in scholarship and service that benefit my students, the legal profession, and the community.
Q. What attracted you to the UConn School of Law and the position of dean?
One reason I’m excited about the opportunity is that UConn Law is a premier public institution committed to helping improve the economic and social mobility of its students and community members throughout the state, country, and indeed the world. The Connecticut Community Law Center is a perfect example of this commitment, as it benefits not only recent law school graduates but also low- and moderate-income clients. As someone who has spent her entire academic career teaching at public institutions, I wholeheartedly embrace this mission of uplifting others, and I am committed to furthering it as dean of UConn Law.
Another thing that attracted me is the Law School’s commitment to accessibility and affordability, coupled with its commitment to diversity and inclusion. My scholarship centers on the provision of equitable educational opportunities for economically disadvantaged and minority students, and it is critically important that the doors of universities and law schools are open to people from various backgrounds who are at various stages of their lives. It also needs to be affordable for them to walk through the doors. UConn Law shows its commitment to these values through its day and evening divisions, its nationally ranked part-time program, and its LLM, SJD and professional certificate programs.
The generosity of the Law School’s alumni and friends helps ensure that others have access to the same first-rate legal education that they had. As someone who greatly benefited from such philanthropy during my undergraduate and legal studies, I am committed to maintaining and enhancing such support for our current and future law students.
Q. It’s hard to imagine a more challenging time to take on the leadership of a law school. What will your first priorities be when you arrive?
These are definitely difficult times that present unique challenges for us all. However, such challenges afford us the opportunity to be creative and bold as we devise innovative plans and strategies to meet them. The regretful yet necessary decision to hold classes online this fall to ensure the health and safety of our law school community is one of those challenges. One of my first priorities will be to support our students, staff and faculty as they prepare to meet this challenge. I am very confident in the fortitude of our law school and university communities to adjust as needed to successfully weather the storm.
Another priority will be to enhance our efforts to create and maintain a more diverse and inclusive community for our faculty, staff, and students. Academic excellence is intrinsically linked to diversity of all kinds, and it is incumbent upon the Law School to prepare our students to thrive and lead in a diverse world.
I also plan to meet (albeit virtually for the time being) with as many members of the law school, alumni, legal profession, university, and surrounding communities as possible to contemplate ways we can work together to build upon the remarkable near 100-year legacy of UConn Law and to expand our local, national, and global impact. It is my goal to learn from and partner with stakeholders who will play an integral role in the success of the Law School both during these challenging times and after those times have passed.
Q. How do you see the global pandemic changing or intensifying the issues facing law schools, including the future of legal education?
The global pandemic’s impact on student enrollment, job placement, budgets and other matters cannot be underestimated. Since the economic downturn of 2008, law schools have had to contend with similar issues, and the pandemic now threatens the gains of the past decade. Law schools will need to be innovative and nimble in their responses to the challenges that confront them. Law schools will also have to ensure the health and safety of their communities in new ways. We will need to take steps to mitigate the spread of the virus and the mental and emotional toll it has taken on students, staff, and faculty. The good news is that, with its history of innovative teaching and programming, dedicated and caring faculty, staff, and students, and faithful alumni, UConn Law is well-positioned to effectively meet the challenges that lie ahead.
Q. The protests in response to the killing of George Floyd and many other Black people are shifting the national dialogue and bringing fresh urgency to matters of race and justice. What is the Law School’s role in making positive change?
Legal educators and law students grapple daily with complex issues, and we are uniquely positioned to confront the persistent legacy of systemic racism, police brutality and racially motivated violence. Pursuing justice and dismantling systems that impede progress and opportunity for all is difficult but necessary work. As dean, I am committed to seeing our Law School take meaningful action both within and outside our doors to uphold our responsibilities as an institution of legal education to advance the cause of justice. To that end, this summer I convened a working group to explore establishing a new center focused on criminal justice issues at the Law School. The center will be an important opportunity to expand the impact of our law school’s expertise in this area while also strengthening our commitment to addressing issues related to racial and social justice. As Congressman John Lewis said when he spoke at the 2012 UConn School of Law commencement, “We all live in the same house,” and we have a shared responsibility to work together to ensure that the foundation of our house is built upon equity and inclusion for all.
Q. How do you relax? Any hobbies?
I enjoy cooking, entertaining, and spending time with my family and friends. I also enjoy playing tennis and reading. In addition, I’ve been known to engage in the “occasional” Netflix binge-watching session.