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William & Mary law school, nation's oldest, hires UVa professor as first African American dean

RICHMOND — The oldest law school in the U.S. has hired its first black leader.

The College of William & Mary announced Monday that A. Benjamin Spencer, a civil procedure and federal courts scholar who teaches law at the University of Virginia, is the new dean of the Williamsburg university’s law school. Spencer is the first African American dean of any school at William & Mary, including the law school, a spokesman said.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s 2020 and there are still things that African Americans haven’t had the opportunity to do,” Spencer said in an interview. “But we have a leader in Katherine Rowe at William & Mary who is extremely visionary and she’s definitely the type of person you’d expect to make this type of move and facilitate the breaking of that barrier.”

Rowe, who the university’s governing board hired in 2018, is the first woman president in William & Mary’s history.

“Since the beginning of the search process we sought a leader who values all three aspects of the law: the academy, the bar and the bench,” Rowe said in a statement. “Ben brings that broad view of legal practice, together with a deep appreciation of the ethos of the citizen lawyer that has inspired the oldest law school in the country since its founding.”

Spencer’s father, James R. Spencer, became the first African American federal judge in Virginia in 1986. His grandfather, Adam S. Arnold, was the first African American professor at Notre Dame.

“It’s a family tradition it seems,” said Ben Spencer, who is married and has nine children.

Spencer, a Hampton native, has taught at UVa’s law school since 2014, where he also has served as the faculty adviser to the Black Law Students Association, among other roles. The Harvard Law School alumnus is also a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve Judge Advocate General’s Corps, where he briefs and argues appeals on behalf of the Army.

“Like William & Mary’s George Wythe, the nation’s first professor of law, Ben is deeply committed to his students’ development as citizen lawyers,” said William & Mary Provost Peggy Agouris. “When you add his experience as an academic leader, scholar and researcher, he is the perfect fit for a law school known for excellence, community, faculty-student interaction and commitment to the public good.”

At William & Mary, Spencer will succeed Davison Douglas, who is set to return to the school’s faculty after serving as dean for more than a decade.

“I am delighted with the selection of Ben Spencer as the next dean of William & Mary Law school,” Douglas said. “He is a marvelous leader and is the right person to help the law school continue its forward momentum.”

Said Spencer: “Dean Dave Douglas has done an absolutely terrific job of stewarding the law school through the many challenges of the last decade, advancing its status as one of the nation’s top-tier law schools. I look forward to building on that solid foundation and to make William & Mary law a preeminent law school that develops highly competent and engaged citizen lawyers who serve their clients and communities with distinction, integrity and passion.”

Spencer will start in the role July 1.


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