Law school’s new president aims to involve students in striving for racial justice
By Anne Murphy
Asked this summer about his first month as president and dean of Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Dr. Anthony Niedwiecki remembers thinking, “This job is much different than when I accepted it.” That was in February when COVID-19 was not on the radar as a pandemic and the killing of George Floyd had not yet raised the bar for addressing issues of race. What has remained the same, Niedwiecki said, is his enthusiasm for leading Mitchell Hamline and his view of Saint Paul as a city rich in diversity and hope.
“So much has happened,” he said. “COVID changed everything for law schools across the country. By the beginning of April, every law school was online.” The move to online classes was easier for Mitchell Hamline than many other law schools, according to Niedwiecki. “It’s something this school has been doing for a long time, so we already had the supports and skills in place,” he said.
That also played into Niedwiecki’s decision to continue with all online classes this fall. “A few months ago, the school put together a plan to open partially in the fall with 25 percent of the classes on campus and the rest online,” he said. “But three months ago we thought things would be very different than they are now. The good thing is, we didn’t have to make a decision based on finances or quality of education or whether we could do something online or not. We could make the decision solely on what’s best for the safety and health of our students and staff. We’re able to provide a really good quality legal education online.”
The other event that has greatly affected his position, Niedwiecki said, was the killing of George Floyd. The racial unrest that his death unleashed was “built upon years of these issues going unfixed,” he said. Moving forward, he sees “a great opportunity for law schools to play a leadership role in how we reform our justice system, reform policing and offer solutions to these tough issues.”
At Mitchell Hamline, he said, “we’re poised to be able to do that because the school is so grounded in the community and really wanting to make a difference. I think we’re right in that period of time when we’re able to step up and help provide support and deal with some of these difficult racial and policing issues.”
For Niedwiecki, the strength of Mitchell Hamline is rooted in the schools from which it sprang. When Hamline University School of Law merged with William Mitchell College of Law in 2015, it was a blending of two schools whose “missions were aligned,” he said. “Both schools saw their role to educate people from underserved and underrepresented groups—first-generation students, people from diverse backgrounds who didn’t usually go to law school. Both schools also had a long history of clinical education with community service as an extension.”
Those strengths were enhanced when Mitchell Hamline added “our blended learning program, which made classes available to people off campus,” Niedwiecki said. That put the school on a path that strengthened it financially and educationally, he said. Mitchell Hamline has just over 1,100 students. Ten percent of them are from Saint Paul. Others are from surrounding areas with the blended online component bringing in students from across the nation.
In addition to students just out of college, Niedwiecki said, “we have doctors, elected officials, accountants, people with all of these different backgrounds who have decided they need a law degree to advance what they want to do in life. More and more, students come because something happened in their lives and they feel they need to help make change. My goal is to make sure we give our students the tools to do that.”
The desire to make a difference is what drew Niedwiecki, 53, to a career in law. “I always wanted to go to law school, but I became even more interested when I had my first teaching job in North Carolina,” he said. A native of Detroit and a graduate of Wayne State University there, Niedwiecki said, “I quickly realized that I was replacing a teacher who’d been fired for being gay. I wasn’t open about my own sexual orientation, and knowing about the person I replaced made it even harder for me to be open. I spent the next couple of years in that job realizing that I needed to move forward with my life, and I wanted to do what I could to change things so that others weren’t fired for being gay. That inspired me to go to law school. I chose Tulane in New Orleans because it was the only law school with a journal dedicated to law and sexual orientation.”
After receiving his law degree, Niedwiecki earned a master’s degree in legal education from Temple University in Philadelphia and held government as well as teaching and educational leadership positions.
“I’ve got 50 to 60 first cousins, and I was the first one to go to college,” Niedwiecki said. “My mom was a school bus driver and my dad worked in a factory. I wanted to show that you can go through this and become a lawyer and be able to make positive change in the world.”
In the months ahead, Mitchell Hamline will build on its classes, clinical programs and events to address important issues affecting the Twin Cities and the nation, Niedwiecki said. The clinical work of Hamline Mitchell students is aimed at helping people affected by the pandemic, people whose businesses were damaged in the rioting that followed Floyd’s death, “and maybe some people who were arrested for protesting,” he said. “We’re offering a critical lawyering course dedicated to racism and policing this fall, and I hope to start a new racial justice program at the school in the next year.
“What’s so nice here, what has been so exciting for me, is the sense I get from being in Saint Paul,” he said. “There seems to be a desire here for community. And we’re located in the heart of the community.”
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