Lisa Kloppenberg took over as dean of Santa Clara University School of Law on July 1, after more than a decade at the University of Dayton law school, where she served as dean. She sat down with FYI to talk about what brought her here, her role models, and Zumba. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What drew you to the job of dean at Santa Clara University School of Law?
A: The Jesuit mission was really important to me. I was raised Catholic, an active Catholic, the values of the Jesuits really resonate with how I see what God wants us to be about—about other people, being compassionate, thinking hard about how we make this world better, realizing it's never going to be perfect, but how do we contribute to the common good for all people? I'm also very attracted to the spirit of innovation, not just at the law school, but throughout the Valley, and Santa Clara. There seems to be a real emphasis on thinking about the future, and that's always been kind of important to me. It's something I think I bring some skills to.
Q: You’re known as a pioneer in legal education, the first female law dean at Dayton—and in Ohio—and overseer of a pioneering two-year accelerated degree program. To what do you attribute your success as a pioneer?
A: Really supportive parents. I was adopted by a wonderful family, and they really believed in education. I also had some great role models along the way, women who had been pioneers, who were leaders in their field, but were also mothers and very nurturing women who would bring along other women. I had an aunt who lived overseas and really acquainted us with the broader world. And my mother, who never had a chance to finish high school, was the biggest advocate of education in our family. And Judge Nelson for whom I clerked and am writing a book about. She was one of the first female law professors nationally, first female deans, and first female appellate judges, really a pioneer in the 1950s. She started in law school when there were maybe two or three women in the class, where the women wore white gloves, and some of the teachers only called on you on Ladies Day. Luckily, the world has changed.
Q: Some of the innovations you oversaw at UD included: increasing diversity, strengthening the law and technology program, LLM and the master's program for non-lawyers, expanding the Catholic identity there, co-curricular projects, and the accelerated two-year degree program. Do you think Santa Clara Law would or should benefit from considering these kinds of innovations? And if so, which ones?
A: I think Santa Clara Law is in a very strong position. There’s a lot behind what's written on paper, on the website. There's real gravity to it. I also think it's an important time for everybody in legal education to be thinking hard about the future. I'm still in my first hundred days. So I'm listening in the Jesuit tradition. But I am thinking hard and asking other people to think about, “What do we want to be in the future? What are the right programs for us? What's the right size for us? How do we continue to be strong?”
Q: We've all heard the criticisms of legal education, that it’s a costly avenue to shrinking job prospects. How do you reassure people about the value of a legal education?
A: I think it is costly, but all higher ed is, and it's still, compared to other fields, such an advancement in life. Having a J.D. degree is often a credential that helps you advance, even within a university system, within a government job, within the private sector. If you look at any community, at who is in public service, who are the people running the nonprofits, who is serving on the boards, who is helping to fund some of this stuff—lawyers play a critical role.
Q: Is there anything you'd especially like to convey to Santa Clara University faculty and staff?
A: First and foremost, I just want to say thanks for welcoming me and my family. We do feel very warmly welcomed, and we appreciate that very much. And I'm very interested in exploring opportunities. With business, with engineering, with the school of education, there's a lot of opportunities to think about [joint programming] because, like it or not, law impacts people's lives. I'm very excited to begin those conversations with the deans and the other leaders here at Santa Clara.
Q: What's something that people are surprised to learn about you?
A: Well, I never met a lawyer until I was in my third year of college, and a lawyer who was an adjunct professor at USC taught my First Amendment course. He said, “You should think about law school.” Before that, I was in journalism and English. Another surprising thing, I love to go to Zumba classes or any kind of high cardio dance classes. My family laughs at me, but I do love that music and good exercise.