A native New Yorker who admits she was "suspicious of the Midwest," Marcella David nevertheless decided to attend Michigan Law. And so began an unlikely journey that has led her to the top ranks of law-school academia.
While she was a student, several professors pointed out to her that she should consider a career in academia. "I was a good student"—indeed, she graduated magna cum laude, Order of the Coif—"and I think that's how I caught their attention." Among the professors were Sallyanne Payton and Doug Kahn.
The Road to the Academy
She knew, though, that she wanted experience as a law clerk and practicing attorney. After earning her JD in 1989, she clerked for Judge Louis H. Pollak of the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Then she was chosen as a clerk for Justice William Brennan Jr. of the Supreme Court of the United States, but he retired before her clerkship was to have begun, so she taught for a year at the University of Chicago Law School. A year as a Ford Foundation Fellow in Public International Law at Harvard Law School enabled her to focus on topics she fell in love with at Michigan and to travel to Iraq and South Africa.
David's year as a visitor at Chicago helped her to see what some of her professors had observed years before: that academia was a good home for her. So, after a few years at Paul Weiss in New York, she joined the faculty at the University of Iowa College of Law. She worked as an associate professor, then a professor, and, from 2006–09, as the university's special assistant to the president for equal opportunity and diversity, and associate provost for diversity. She then returned to the faculty and became an associate dean of the college of law.
"I love the range of experiences I've been able to have, working in the academy," said David, who is now provost and vice president for academic affairs and professor of law at Florida A&M University.
A Leader With a Range of Interests
Part of the appeal of academia is that she has been involved with numerous organizations within and outside of the university, including in many leadership roles. In addition to the associate deanship and the leading of the university's diversity efforts, she has been a governing board member of the national Worker Rights Consortium and a chair or member of numerous university boards and committees. Recently, she has begun working with others on campus on how to respond ethically and effectively to international disasters.
"As a member of the academy, I've been able to do everything that interests me. I can work on international efforts, as well as teach international law in the classroom. I can affect the way that the university and the law school make decisions. And I get to work with the nicest students and a very collegial faculty," she said. "It's everything I could ever want."
From New York to Ann Arbor
As someone in the top ranks of academia, David is a long way from where she began life—and not just because of the geographic distance between her childhood home in the shadow of Shea Stadium and Iowa City.
"I guess I would say I was a somewhat improbable person to accomplish the things I've accomplished, given the time I grew up," David said. "Segregation was not a dim memory when I was growing up. There was a lot of overt separation. There was a lot said about what women should and should not do. My parents were products of their time; they both got their degrees after my sister and I were born."
The Impact of the Darrow Scholarship
At Michigan Law, her tuition was fully paid for through a Darrow Scholarship, one of the highest honors the school bestows on incoming students (upon learning of the award, she immediately began reading Inherit the Wind and Attorney for the Damned. She also was a summer starter, something that appealed to her as a way of making the transition from a smaller school (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) to a larger one. Even so, she began the term with nightmares as she made the adjustment (she attributes the bad dreams, about being eaten by giant spiders, to watching "too many movies about small critters affected by radioactive material" when she was a teenager).
Soon, though, the nightmares subsided. "I was very pleased to be there in the summer and get a chance to know Ann Arbor on my own terms. And my class was a great group of people. I had lots of good friends, and the BLSA (Black Law Students Association) students who were in town and Detroit-based took us out and gave me fabulous advice and mentoring." By the end of the summer, she had hit her stride. "I was able to take three exams over the summer serially, so it was easier for me to figure out what I needed to do and to enjoy it."
The foundation for all of it, she said, was her education at Michigan Law. "I would say that the Darrow Scholarship that I got, the fit that Michigan provided for me, and being in the summer program—those were three very important things that helped me succeed."
Story written by Katie Vloet.
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