photo of Tolu speaking at a podium.

A well-connected advocate for diversity

Tolu Odunsi’s School of Law portfolio has taken a giant leap. Even as she continues teaching courses in the school’s Legal Analysis, Writing and Research sequence, she has been named an assistant dean focusing on deepening the diversity of the law school community.

In that role she builds on the work of Kendra Cadogan, who has moved on to work on diversity initiatives and policy with Vice Chancellor Teresa Miller in the State University of New York administration in Albany. Odunsi, who earned her J.D. cum laude at American University, worked in private practice and in state Supreme Court before joining UB School of Law last year.

Taking time out from preparing for the seventh iteration of the Discover Law pipeline program for promising undergraduates of color – June 1 to 29 this year, with about 16 students expected – Odunsi discussed her plans in the new position and the state of diversity at the law school.

Your job title includes responsibility for diversity, equity and inclusion. How do you define each of these in relation to UB School of Law?

Diversity, to me, really focuses on underrepresented groups who aren’t a part of the majority population – people who don’t identify as white, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities. We’re talking more now about diverse political beliefs as well.

My role is to make sure that everyone feels included. That includes making sure that our faculty are culturally competent toward student needs, making sure that the students are aware of specific opportunities for students of color, encouraging students if they want to have a cohort. We need students to know they have a space here and they’re welcomed in our academic environment.

Equity is really about outcomes – making sure people are getting the same or similar opportunities, whether that’s pay, access to spaces in the school, access to faculty or access to academic opportunities.

Tolu talking with students.

Odunsi talking with law students at the School of Law's Students of Color Brunch.

How diverse is the law school’s student body and faculty now?

From 2017 to 2018, our student diversity increased from 16 percent to 23 percent (exclusive of our international students). We were recently ranked No. 5 in the Eastern Region as one of the best law schools for black students, by the Black Student’s Guide to Law Schools. I think we can do more advertising around that.

I also think we can do a better job of attracting talented faculty of color, and publicizing that environment. More broadly, the biggest problem is that the legal profession is one of the least diverse professions in the country.

You have a lot of connections in the Western New York legal community through your work with the Minority Bar Association. How do you see those connections helping with this new position?

I’m excited to leverage those relationships for the benefit of the students. Having those connections just means having more partners for the school. I’m one who’s not afraid to make a phone call and say, Hey, this person needs a job and is still looking, do you have anything?

The visibility of my prior role as president of the Minority Bar Association of WNY should be helpful.

How do you expect to interact with student organizations like BLSA, LALSA and OUTLaw?

I’m really coming at it from a place of academic wellness, and so it’s helpful that I’m faculty as well. Part of my goal is to institute different workshops, whether it’s an academic wellness workshop, bringing in mental health professionals to help students navigate the rigors of law school, or extra workshops on writing or legal analysis or bluebooking.

How can alumni help with these efforts?

Two of the biggest bottom lines for law schools are the bar passage rate and jobs at graduation, particularly with students from marginalized groups. If you’re a mentor to a law student taking the bar exam, make sure they are really being serious about their bar prep course and sticking with it. In terms of jobs, if you’re hiring, let us know.

I’m really excited about the new position and excited to partner with whoever has an interest in diversity and inclusion at the law school, whether it’s lawyers, corporations or other faculty in the school. The more we can collaborate, the better.