Collaboration is key to Michèle Alexandre, the new dean of Stetson University’s College of Law.
Alexandre, a civil rights scholar, administrator and trailblazer, was chosen to lead the law school last month following a nationwide search. She starts work June 17 at the Gulfport school. She will be the first black dean at the College of Law, the first law school in Florida, ranked No. 1 in trial advocacy and No. 3 in legal writing education by U.S. News.
Alexandre is committed to maintaining those rankings and building on those accomplishments.
“Our first year we will work hard as a collective, setting goals, to set new targets for excellence,” Alexandre told the St. Pete Catalyst.
Alexandre will be in Tallahassee Wednesday, where she will be honored with a proclamation on the Senate floor as Stetson Law’s first black dean. She will be welcomed to Florida by the Legislature and greeted by members of the Supreme Court.
She said she was drawn to Stetson College of Law because of the school’s commitment to social justice and student engagement.
“Every time I would research the school I would learn so much about what students were doing and how they developing environmental projects or peace projects or social justice projects, their interest in criminal law. The huge advocacy program that it is known for is wholly based on students,” Alexandre said. “Many law schools might have one of those things. But the entire College of Law has so much of it that it was compelling to me.”
Alexandre’s career in both the academic world and in private law practice has largely focused on civil rights, including work on behalf of black farmers that led to a $1.2 billion settlement in a discrimination case against federal agriculture officials.
At University of Mississippi School of Law, where she has been associate dean for faculty development and intellectual life, she organized the Race and Sustainability Conference, a biennial national conference focused on sustainability and social justice for poor populations in the rural South.
She’s also the author of books about the civil rights movement and gender equity, and has authored numerous law review articles. She’s passionate about her commitment to law.
“I love the law. I love the way it moves, it evolves and it can be shaped, and also is always behind. One who is a lawyer also has to be a teacher, a teacher to the courts, a teacher to students of the law so that we can train new generations of attorneys, and teachers to the rest of society because the lexicon of the law is so archaic that most people don’t know it,” Alexandre said. “That’s law to me. Without it, society doesn’t function … Law is what prevents us from collapsing. But at the same time it is not flawless. It is what we make it. We make it live up to its potential by injecting information, knowledge and by asking the tough questions.”
Alexandre, a native of Haiti who didn’t speak English when she came to the United States at the age of 15, has had a history of “firsts.” She was the first black female valedictorian under she got her undergraduate degree from Colgate University, and she’s now the first black dean at Stetson.
“For me, it’s always meant that I stand on the shoulders of people who came before me, people who were just as talented but were not able at the time to get opportunity,” she said.
One key interest is inclusion, and having conversations about what that means.
“All institutions have to ask themselves what does it mean to be truly inclusive and what could we be doing better. How can we reach populations we don’t think about? Who is in the room and who’s not in the room? How do we serve students in meaningful ways that show we value all aspects of them?” Alexandre said.
Those are tough ideas to grapple with but “I don’t think we have the luxury at any level to not focus on inclusion or to not ask ourselves those questions.”
Mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression, are an issue at law schools, and she said it will be an ongoing focus at Stetson. The school has added counselors, but knows it has to do more, Alexandre said, adding she wants to work with students on the issue.
“The fact is that mental health is a problem reflective of law practice. You know how poorly serviced the general population is mental-health wise. This is a major problem but we’ve only started paying attention to it in law school the last couple of years,” she said. “One of my major commitments is to find ways both of servicing existing mental health needs, but also prevention, to create environments that will help prevent some of the problems that can arise, some of the stress that can lead to mental health issues.”
Alexandre has family in Orlando and in Miami, and said she is eager to learn more about some of the specific issues in Florida and get involved in the community.
Stetson plans a welcome reception for alumni and friends to meet Alexandre next week.