Q&A with President and Dean Alicia Ouellette
Albany Law Magazine: We’ll start with the retrospective question: You have been in this office for five years—what are your proudest accomplishments as dean?
Dean Ouellette: Twenty-fourteen was a really tough year for law schools generally. And Albany Law School wasn’t immune from that. There were identity questions: Who should we be? Whom do we serve? What is the purpose of Albany Law School? We went through a strategic planning process to answer some of those questions. I think, today, that the school is very different. There is a lot of pride from our community in who we are—and optimism about where we are going. That is a result of meeting the goals that we set for ourselves five years ago.
I’m proud of the law school for making some hard decisions. In 2014, we only enrolled 117 students. We decided to hold or improve the academic credentials of that class amid a decline in law school applicants. We took the long-term view. That decision to take a short-term financial hit has paid off in all kinds of ways. Those students found jobs, which led to more students and more applications. We have become much more selective, lowering our acceptance rate yet enrolling larger classes.
The students who are enrolling come from all over the country and all over the world, and they are bringing this incredible quality and focus to the law school. They come to us ready to work. They’re smart, they’re talented, they bring lots of life experience, and they graduate as true professionals. We should all take pride in that.
Along the way we also invested in the idea that Albany Law School can be a leader in teaching law to non-lawyers, and that we can help lawyers specialize in their careers. So we built a graduate school for the study of law. We have new master’s, certificate, and LL.M. programs. And we are doing it in the online space, which allows us to expand our footprint and educate students around the world. That is a tremendous achievement. We have transformed Albany Law School in a way that makes it a more robust institution.
Albany Law School faced those challenges while maintaining its independence, which has been a struggle elsewhere.
That’s right. Many independent law schools have either merged or closed, and we’re thriving.
In your speeches you often state that Albany Law School “is and will remain” an independent institution. Why do you think that line is resonating?
A couple of reasons. There was the question: Is Albany Law School sustainable as an independent law school? We have proven definitively that it is. I also think it resonates because independence is a positive trait—something to take pride in—whether it be in a person or in an institution. Independence is part of our identity in that we are able to be innovators. We are able to move quickly in building new and better academic programs. We can be agile, adapting as we grow, as we change, as we take risks, and as we experiment. In that way, it is clear that independence is a strength.
And now independence takes on an additional meaning in the context of We Rise Together: The Campaign for Albany Law School.
It does, because this decision to stay independent has implications. We control our own destiny. How do we ensure Albany Law School’s success? Well, we have to attract and support the best and the brightest students. One of the most important pillars of this campaign is independence, which is all about adding to our endowment and starting new scholarship funds. We are in an incredibly competitive market. We have applicants who have been accepted to top-tier law schools, and we are in the mix thanks to the generosity of our donors. But we lose some each year due to market forces. Through scholarships, we can give these high-performing students even more of a reason to choose Albany Law School. That is the key to remaining independent.
Investing in students?
Absolutely. Law school is an investment. But we need to invest in our students, too. We don’t want anyone to graduate with crippling debt. To that end, most of our students receive some form of scholarship.
I mentioned the market. We have seen a dramatic change in our applicant pool—we are now competing with national schools, not just the regionals. Students are coming to us with offers from Michigan and Northeastern and George Washington. They are our future. A competitive scholarship is an expression of our commitment to and investment in them.
Take, for example, applicants who are interested in public service. We stress to those individuals that they should seriously weigh scholarship support, which can give them the freedom to pursue that career path without the added stress of a heavier debt load. The ability to make a job choice based on passion, rather than finances, is a huge benefit for those students.
Let’s dig into a nuance. Albany Law School is independent. At the same time, it has numerous institutional partnerships, including an affiliation with the University at Albany. How do those things coexist?
Albany Law School is fortunate to be the only law school in an academically rich town, and we have sought partnerships that will open doors for our students or our faculty. We signed an agreement recently with SUNY Polytechnic Institute to create a program for our students to work and be embedded in a research and development facility, working alongside patent attorneys and technologists. That ability to leverage our partnerships makes us a much bigger place with much better opportunities.
Of course, in many ways our most important relationship is with UAlbany. The affiliation crosses every department of the university. Undergraduate students who would never have thought about this profession are taking classes in or related to law, some of which are taught by our faculty. We have seen an increase in the number of applicants from UAlbany—high-quality students with incredibly diverse backgrounds. Our faculty are co-teaching with UAlbany faculty and participating in grants and research. While the affiliation has been beneficial for both institutions, specific to Albany Law School, it gives us the best of both worlds: we are a small, independent law school that has all the opportunities of an R1 research institution.
Being independent allows us to select our partners strategically. All of our partnerships are important. All of them expand what we can offer our students.
Let’s get into the other I’s. First, innovation. What does innovation at Albany Law School look like?
Innovation looks like taking risks. It means building things that may or may not work. We innovate by talking to folks who are going to be hiring our graduates and asking, “What is it that you need?” Or, “What is it that you think you’ll need?” And then we build curricula to address those needs, making our students that much more marketable.
Innovation at Albany Law School involves interacting with and embracing technology. We’re doing some of it around drones. We have a course in which students are learning about drone law. Instead of buying a textbook, they buy a drone. They learn how to fly it, how to experience it, and how to regulate it. As professionals they will be leading the way in this new area of law.
It’s exciting. We Rise Together: The Campaign for Albany Law School will help fund this brand of forward-looking legal education.
Now, impact. The big news of the year was an anonymous donor’s $15 million gift to support The Justice Center. What does that mean for Albany Law School?
It means that somebody has enough faith in Albany Law School to build with us a legacy. That gift is a tangible show of belief in what we’re doing, who we can serve, what we can accomplish, and everything about our mission. That particular gift is really about what we do in the community. We not only are training the next generation of public interest and public service lawyers, but also are changing lives.
A gift like that is a signal. It is a show of confidence in what we know and feel every day: things are going well at Albany Law School.
It is important to note that many others have trusted Albany Law School with their most important philanthropic contributions. All of these gifts show that we’re getting it right—we are doing something that matters. All of these gifts support our students, and ensure the future of our great law school.
How about the future of Albany Law School? What can we expect to see in the next five years?
I think we are going to continue to see Albany Law School recognized for the special place that it is. The campaign has given us a lot of momentum, as did the strategic plan. I expect we will keep that going, from the impact of our students to the scholarly production of our faculty.
We will continue to respond to this evolving legal market. We wrote the original plan in 2014 to anticipate and stay ahead of changes in the practice of law. And that work will continue through this campaign and through our continual assessment of our strategic initiatives and our strategic goals.
Albany Law School’s priority will remain the same: attracting and educating the best and brightest students—those who will make an impact in this world and will be leaders in business, in law, and in government. That won’t change. We will just have more tools to do it.
Above all, we will be a model for the modern-day, successful independent law school.