Sudha Setty: A New Dean. A New Perspective.

Dean Setty Leads the School of Law into Its Second Century

Up for a Challenge

Serving as the dean of a law school in 2018 is no easy challenge. But Sudha Setty is ready.

For more than a decade, national economic trends, greater competition, tuition costs, and concerns about return on investment contributed to a nationwide decline in law enrollments from an all-time high of 100,600 applicants in 2003-04 to just over 55,700 in 2014-15. Bold steps were needed to reimagine legal education and Western New England University responded: tuition was frozen for several years; new scholarships were established; the curriculum was revamped to enhance its focus on professional skills, externships, and clinical programs; bar exam preparation, academic support, and programs for non-lawyers were expanded; and alumni engagement was strengthened. Thanks to these efforts and a recent national uptick in applications, things are changing.

Dean Setty became the 11th dean of the School of Law in July. After seven years as a corporate litigator at the New York firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell, she joined the School of Law faculty in 2006 and rose through the ranks to a full professor and associate dean for faculty development and intellectual life (2011–2018).

Dean Setty is cautiously optimistic. “Today, law schools throughout the U.S. are strategizing, and in some cases, retooling to adjust to the expectations of a changed legal market, changed law school admissions market, and constrained budgets,” she says.

She believes that this new landscape requires leadership to be creative on many fronts: developing new academic programs and revenue streams in the domestic, international, and online spheres; keeping student debt as low as possible through financial development and budget management; supporting faculty’s scholarly work and professional development while valuing the craft of teaching; and creating a diverse and inclusive legal academic community.

“We are continuing to bring in students with stronger academic credentials, and we are proud of what our graduates can do,” says Dean Setty. “Earlier this year, the American Bar Association released the results of its nationwide study on bar passage, and Western New England’s Ultimate Bar Pass Rate (the percentage of 2015 graduates who passed the bar exam within two years of graduation) was 90.7%, well above the national average. The feeling that we’re on an upward trajectory has inspired a sense of optimism in the School.”

"Being the dean in the University’s centennial year is an honor, because legal education has been a fundamental part of Western New England University for that entire 100 years. Western New England University was built on the ideas of opportunity and community. As we approach the centennial, we can reflect upon and celebrate that history. We can also use it as a moment to consider what the next hundred years will look like and how we want to shape our future." - Sudha Setty

Seeing and Hearing Both Sides

It has been said that a legal education will forever change the way you think.

“One of the great things about law schools is that we teach people to think and how to approach complex problems even if they’re not applying those skills toward a JD degree,” she says. “Whether students intend to be practicing attorneys, serve as human resources professionals, or on their town’s zoning board, understanding the law and how to think about the law gives them tools to analyze complex issues that involve the law and to work effectively toward solutions.”

Dean Setty’s own interest in the law began with her middle school debate club experience.

“I really liked looking at multiple sides of an issue,” she recalls. “It gave me an empathetic understanding that people who are thoughtful about issues can have very different views. It’s also a strategic matter. The coaches of our team said, ‘You are not going to win an argument unless you are willing to listen to and to understand counterarguments.’”

Mock trial experience in high school solidified her desire to be a lawyer despite never having met one. Dean Setty’s parents emigrated from India, and raised their two children in the Worcester, Massachusetts area and then in Storrs, Connecticut. They supported their daughter’s decision to pursue a degree in history with a concentration in comparative civil rights, and later to earn a juris doctor degree.

“In college I was drawn to the idea of seeing parallels across different countries and understanding that political and legal movements that occur in different cultural contexts and across different eras are often informed by the same power dynamics and similar struggles toward justice,” she explains. “Looking comparatively at these topics really spoke to me. It informed my view of the powerful role that lawyers can play as agents of nonviolent social change.”

That foundation laid the groundwork for how Setty thinks about the law and lawyers, and influenced her research and teaching interests.

Some in higher education and the media have attributed the recent rise in JD applicants to a so-called “Trump Bump,” channeling a passion for social justice into an interest in a legal career. Dean Setty sees the actions of the administration as a broader reminder of the important skillset a legal education can provide.

“I think that the current administration has illustrated clearly the importance of good lawyering. I said this during the School of Law’s 2017 series on the ‘First 100 Days of the Trump Administration.’ When President Trump issued his first executive order on travel and immigration right after his inauguration, it was a reminder of how important the law and lawyers are in our society,” she says. “Seeing lawyers and law students running to airports with their laptops to help travelers being detained or turned away at our borders was a powerful testament to the role that lawyers can play in helping those in need. But it was also a reminder that the administration would have benefited greatly from the thoughtful counsel of lawyers who could have helped shape and draft sound policy, something that was clearly lacking with regard to that initial executive order.”

In 2017, Dean Setty revised her approach to teaching constitutional law to help students use their analytical skills to understand the fast-paced changes occurring in government and society. She began almost every class by asking students if they want to discuss the news through the lens of constitutional law.

“This approach, although time-consuming, had enormous benefits: it gave students a more active voice in the classroom, enlivened historical material (such as learning about the limits of presidential power through the context of the special counsel’s investigation), and helped students gain the tools to analyze legal issues in the news. It broadened the number of issues we discussed in class, and empowered students to educate me and each other on various topics.”

“For each and every student, no matter where they lie on the political spectrum, Western New England University School of Law teaches the analytical and practical skills to be able to tackle the problems of the real world in a thoughtful and ethical manner, and to better serve their clients and society.” - Sudha Setty

A New Vision for a Changing Legal Classroom

One of the biggest changes shaping the School of Law today is a paradigm shift from its role of “teaching lawyers” to “teaching how to work with the law.” While the JD program is the core of the institution, the School of Law now offers master’s programs in law for non-lawyers. The Master of Science in Law is designed for financial and HR professionals, journalists, policy makers, and many others who deal with legal topics in their work, but don’t see themselves as becoming practicing attorneys. The online Master of Science in Elder Law and Estate Planning is offered for accountants, financial experts, social workers, and insurance professionals seeking greater expertise in legal aspects of their jobs. The online master’s program is an outgrowth of the LLM in Elder Law and Estate Planning, an advanced degree for practicing lawyers.

Potential changes by the law school accrediting body may allow other online opportunities for our School of Law. “The ABA is contemplating a significant shift in its standards. If that occurs, a lot of law schools will be looking at how much of the JD program to offer as distance learning,” says Dean Setty. “It’s exciting to consider the opportunities that may open up for JD students to spend a semester studying online while doing fieldwork here or abroad. As an institution, we will have to weigh the potential benefits of these opportunities while ensuring we stay true to our fundamental mission of giving our students an excellent legal education.”

What’s Next?

As she settles into her new role, Dean Setty looks to solidify current programs, expand clinics, and explore new opportunities to leverage faculty expertise. The new School of Law Speakers Bureau and the highly successful Mini-Law School seminars for the general public are two such examples. She is also intrigued by the prospect of establishing a Center for Social Justice, an idea that has been floated at the School of Law in recent years that she is ready to explore, especially given the strength of the faculty, student interest, and the unmet legal needs of the Springfield/Hartford community.

“Part of this first year will be thinking about the nuts and bolts of a center, but also looking at the capacities and interests of the various stakeholders of the School.”

For Dean Setty, one of the attractions of the deanship was the opportunity to both manage and inspire the people she works with in such new initiatives.

“It is gratifying to have tremendous support from faculty, staff, students, and alumni,” she says. “The dean is the person who sets the tone and vision for the School. There are many voices here. As a person who values multiple perspectives, my goal is to set that tone collaboratively as we move into our second century and contemplate new and exciting possibilities for the School of Law.”

An International Legal Scholar and Acclaimed Teacher

Dean Setty holds a J.D. from Columbia Law School and an A.B. from Stanford University. She is both a gifted classroom teacher and noted legal scholar. Her teaching and extensive body of scholarship focus on constitutional law, comparative law, rule of law, and national security. Her 2017 book, National Security Secrecy: Comparative Effects on Democracy and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press), examines the infrastructure of national security-related secrecy in the United States from a comparative perspective. Her scholarship has led to invitations to teach and present her work around the globe, including as a visiting scholar at the University of Cape Town in 2018, as a conference organizer and presenter at the National Law School of India in 2016, as a Fulbright Senior Specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2014, and as a visiting lecturer at Tilberg University in 2014.

Among her numerous accolades, Dean Setty is a three-time recipient of the School’s Catherine Jones Teaching Excellence Award (2009, 2016, 2018) and the 2017 Connecticut Bar Association Tapping Reeve Legal Educator of the Year. In July 2018 she was elected to membership in the American Law Institute. She serves on the editorial board of the Journal of National Security Law and Policy, and on the executive committee of the American Society of Comparative Law.

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