Opening Statements

10 Questions: Harvard Law's dean of students began as a ballerina

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Did the fact that you had been a young athlete help you relate to the basketball players?

Oh, completely. What was amazing was being part of shaping orientation for incoming players. When you see young men, particularly those whose families didn’t have the resources like the family I came from, get drafted, it was eye-opening to see what they were able to do for their families because of the financial payout for these top athletes.

You eventually left the NBA to join Thomson Reuters, and then you returned to academic administration at Columbia until 2015, when Harvard called. Why did you decide to accept the job in Boston?

I could have said no, because I love New York. But I was feeling like: I am not really that old, so why not try a big jump?

Did it turn out to be that different from what you’d done in the past at Columbia?

My first year was one of the craziest of any job I’ve ever had. We went from a Title IX report, to industrial black tape placed over the photos of the faces of African-American professors in Wasserstein Hall, to students advocating for changes and even a terrible outbreak of mumps. I had to quickly jump in. The students didn’t really know me that well. I was advocating for them, and we had to work together and with other administrative offices on some changes to orientation. Not that they’re magical, but we made some changes to acclimatize students to law school and what it means to have the kind of discussions that lawyers have on issues, recognizing that at times you can’t be dispassionate, but you have to be respectful and generous. That’s what engagement is about: It’s about growing and learning. Those are the things that I get to work on.

You have a teenage daughter. Is she interested in ballet?

She did take dance lessons, but I knew she wasn’t going to be a ballet girl when she said, “Do you mind if I start going to Saturday Little League instead of ballet?”

Do you still feel connected to the Dance Theatre of Harlem?

Completely. I feel it so much. When Mr. Mitchell was looking for a place to put his archives, I was working at Columbia, and I worked to help him understand (1) why it was necessary to find a place for his archives and (2) why Columbia was that place.

And he agreed, right?

Yes, and on Jan. 12, I’ll be at the opening of a major exhibit at the new Wallach gallery in Lenfest Center for the Arts that Columbia has built, and it’s going to feature Arthur Mitchell. It’s called, “Arthur Mitchell: Harlem’s Ballet Trailblazer.” It will be a combination of the work of the Dance Theatre of Harlem in words and pictures, movies of him doing different ballets, traveling with the New York City Ballet and photographs of Mitchell, Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine creating Agon, a ballet in four parts with the feature pas de deux section that changed ballet with Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams. It is deeply gratifying to have helped Mr. Mitchell achieve his goal to have his story not disappear and be part of the larger history of dance and ballet in the U.S. He helped so many dancers of color see their dreams come true, and future generations need to know it is still possible.

This article was published in the January 2018 issue of the ABA Journal with the title "Dance Moves: Harvard Law’s dean of students began as a ballerina before leaping into law."

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