Building on Success

A Q&A with Dr. Angela Onwuachi-Willig, BU Law's new dean.

Dr. Angela Onwuachi-Willig, a noted scholar of employment discrimination law, family law, and law and inequality, joined Boston University School of Law as dean in August. A prolific writer and authority on racial and gender inequality as well as anti-discrimination law, she is author of According to Our Hearts: Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and the Law of the Multiracial Family. Previously, she was Chancellor’s Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. She has taught employment discrimination, evidence, family law, critical race theory, and torts.

A graduate of Grinnell College, Dean Onwuachi-Willig received her JD from the University of Michigan, where she was a Clarence Darrow Scholar, a Michigan Law Review note editor, and an associate editor for the founding issue of the Michigan Journal of Race & Law. After law school, she clerked for Chief Judge Solomon Oliver of the Northern District of Ohio and US Sixth Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore. She received her PhD in sociology and African American studies from Yale University.

The Record spoke with Dean Onwuachi-Willig about how she approaches teaching and scholarship, why she wanted to join the BU Law community, and how she intends to build on the success of previous deans.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

Photo by Doug Levy for BU Photography

The Record: When did you become interested in the law and teaching?

Angela Onwuachi-Willig: In my junior year [at Grinnell College], I took a couple of courses that inspired my interest in law school. Also, the summer thereafter, I participated in a summer research program that sparked my interest in teaching. The program was designed to recruit students of color to work in academia. At the end of the program, our advisors asked us whether we’d been convinced to become academics. My response was, “I really enjoyed writing scholarship, but I’ve decided to go to law school.” One of my professors, though not my advisor in the program, said, “Well, you should think about becoming a law professor.”

I didn’t know what it meant to be a law professor, and aside from the exposure that I had in that program, I don’t think I had a full understanding of what it meant to be a scholar, but I went to law school thinking in the back of my head, “maybe I want to be a law professor.” That one sentence changed my life. That experience has taught me how important it is to encourage students to pursue careers or goals they may not otherwise consider.

And then you went to the University of Michigan for your JD?

Yes. I very much remember going to law school and feeling really out of place during my first week. People were talking about law firms and they all seemed to know the names of these firms. I didn’t even really understand the structure of a firm or what a firm was. It all sounded like a different language to me. Many of my classmates also knew what law review was. They knew about clerkships. I later learned about all those things, in part because of the networks I developed with other students in law school. It was an interesting experience, and I think my lack of knowledge about the “goodies” in law school when I was a student really shaped the way that I think about legal education and access to the law.

One of the things that I learned throughout law school and in the legal profession is that access to information, in addition to resources, is really key. I was lucky to have access to information that allowed me to pursue opportunities and become a professor. Simply having access to information opened up a lot of doors for me.

What drew you to family law and employment discrimination, and law and inequality more generally?

My interests turned initially to employment discrimination law and anti-discrimination law because those were the things that shaped my life. The things that caught my attention in law school were the anti-discrimination cases because I grew up in the South and experienced discrimination throughout my life. Plus, I went to law school because I wanted to know how to use the law as a tool to assist other people. Law struck me as a powerful tool to effect social change.

I took family law in my last year of law school and just really liked the course. At the time, same-sex marriage was not allowed. I had a number of friends who were personally affected by this type of sexual orientation discrimination in the law. I remember, distinctly, learning a lot from people in college and being exposed to people who had completely different life experiences. I also was drawn to family law and anti-discrimination law because I’ve always been someone who has rooted for the underdog, in part because of what I have seen and experienced my whole life.

Do you feel that law schools can address these systemic challenges?

Yes, I think so. It’s difficult to really tackle them because we’re part of a larger society with huge structural problems. I wanted to be an administrator in part because I believe it’s important to have people who are interested in providing access to legal education for a broader range of people and people who are interested in thinking more structurally about how we can make the legal profession more inclusive and how we can make legal services more accessible. As a professor, you have enormous potential to influence how students think about the law, how critical they are, and what they think they can do when they leave law school. As an administrator, you have even more influence. I have a deep appreciation for what educational institutions can do in terms of shaping people and providing them with opportunities.

What attracted you to BU Law?

BU is an excellent institution in a lot of ways. It has a stellar academic reputation. It has this rich and beautiful history of diversity and access, and I love that the very foundation of the school is built on access and inclusion. And, I love that BU is proud to have not only top scholars on the faculty, but also some of the very best teachers in the academy.

The students are phenomenal. They are smart, talented, and they feel really empowered. I liked that they asked me difficult questions during my interview. I like that they feel a real ownership of the school and are really protective of it. They also expressed how much they have loved their experience at BU Law, and that is really meaningful to me. Maureen did a great job of leaving the law school in a great position with a successful capital campaign, a new building, and more. So, I felt like BU Law was a good school to come in and continue to build on the success of the previous deans. I am not entering the law school in emergency mode. My faculty colleagues and I can take our time to think about how we want to advance the school and set the school up for a brighter future.

The alumni have also been phenomenal. They are just an absolute treasure. I hear more and more amazing things about what people have accomplished after graduating from BU Law. The alumni are fiercely loyal to the school, and they want the generations that follow them to have the same kind of excellent education they had. Plus, everybody whom I met loved BU, and many of them had been working at BU a long time, and that kind of employee loyalty is a sign of a really good place.

Do you have any goals that you would like to accomplish in your first year as dean?

As a new dean and a new member of the community, I have to simply come in and learn about the institution first. My goal is to listen carefully to and learn from students, faculty, and staff about the law school culture and the challenges the community faces, and to really figure out how people understand BU Law and where they want BU Law to go so I can work with the community to achieve that vision.

One of the things that we’ll do in the first year is have our own mini-strategic planning discussions. I want to think deeply about what we want to do to advance the institution in terms of admissions and enrollment, equity and inclusion, alumni engagement, professional placement, teaching, scholarship, and student life.

And then, one of my primary goals will be fundraising to ensure that our programs remain top notch and our students have the support they need and deserve. Legal education is more expensive than ever, so I want to raise funds for scholarships as well as support curricular and scholarly innovations. I also want to get out and meet alumni—in groups and individually. I will spend time meeting our most active and loyal alumni, and I will travel to cities where there are big pockets of alumni to meet with people in groups. I want to introduce myself and talk about the success of the law school and where we hope it can go and how the alumni can assist in that effort.

Finally, I think that BU Law is a really distinctive community, and I want to be thinking about how we can communicate that and best inform the public about all the amazing things that are happening here.

What do you like to do for fun when you’re not teaching or doing research?

I like to spend time with my family, of course. I like pop music a lot. I listen to the radio and dance by myself. I like the show Beat Shazam. I’m really good at guessing songs after hearing just a few notes. I’ve often joked that I should engage in some kind of competition with the students. I enjoy bad TV. My favorite show is Survivor. I’ve seen every season but the first one. I just think it’s super fascinating to watch the race and gender dynamics on the show, to see who forms alliances with each other, who gets voted off and in what order. I think it’s one of the most interesting things on the planet.

And I like to write creatively. So, I guess you could say the arts in general, but not even the high-brow stuff!

Is there anything else that you would like the BU Law community to know about you?

I believe in the transformative power of education, and I have a deep appreciation for the role that alumni have played, can play, and will play in enabling generations of BU Law students to come and get an excellent education just like they did, to leave with great opportunities, and to do good in the world. And there are a lot of ways to do good. I think that alumni are an incredibly important part of BU Law’s continued success. I look forward to partnering with them in this effort and to being part of what I see as an amazing community of people who care deeply about the institution.

This feature originally appeared in The Record, BU Law’s alumni magazine. Read the full issue here.

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