Presidential Address – Courage in Action

Delivered at the Meeting of the AALS House of Representatives at the AALS Annual Meeting on January 6, 2024.

By AALS President Melanie Wilson, Dean, Washington and Lee University School of Law.

Good afternoon, and thank you for the warm welcome. Mark, it has been a great honor to work with you and the Executive Committee during your year as President. I am fortunate to follow your trail of wise and thoughtful leadership. You’ve been a wonderful President, and I’m especially fortunate to call you my friend. 

As I step into this role as President and before I share a few thoughts on the next year, I want to express my sincere and heartfelt gratitude to some special people. 

As an initial matter, I am grateful to the staff of the AALS. They work diligently and thoughtfully every day. They are collaborative, loyal, and team-minded. Their work behind the scenes facilitates this incredible annual meeting and all that AALS accomplishes during the year. The staff is inspired by the extraordinary leadership of Judy Areen, a legendary Executive Director and a trailblazer in legal education who, when she retires in June, will leave our profession so much better than when she found it, particularly for women. Judy, thank you for your outstanding leadership and adept guidance of the AALS organization since 2014. I am excited and, indeed, honored to serve as President during your tenure as Executive Director. 

Over the past four years, I have enjoyed the privilege of serving on the Executive Committee with incredible AALS Presidents. I have learned so much from each of them: Mark Alexander, Erwin Chemerinsky, Vincent Rougeau, and Darby Dickerson. What a group of brilliant and effective leaders. 

I want to express my gratitude to, and fondness for, members of the AALS Executive Committee with whom I’ve served during the past four years. They are role models for thoughtful, good faith debate and collaboration. 

I am grateful to, and would like to recognize, four different institutions that have provided me with incredible opportunities for personal and professional growth. 

First my alma mater, the University of Georgia, where I spent seven formative years. I remain thankful for the incredible, rigorous and well-rounded legal education I received there. I continue to find inspiration for my own teaching from my favorite law professor there, Dan Coenen, who modeled for me the right balance of rigor, high expectations, and exuberant encouragement. 

I owe a debt of gratitude to the University of Kansas, where I earned tenure, was promoted to professor, and accepted my first substantial academic leadership roles. I am especially thankful to Stephen Mazza, Dean and Professor of Law at Kansas, who tapped me as his associate dean for academic affairs, and to Stacy Leeds, now the Dean and Regents and Foundation Professor of Law at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Stacy preceded me as associate dean at Kansas. Both Stephen and Stacy have become dear friends, mentors, and advisors. I am delighted that they have agreed to serve on the Program Committee for the 2025 Annual Meeting. 

I am thankful to the University of Tennessee, and my many wonderful colleagues there, for allowing me to serve as dean for five fruitful years. I will always reflect with gratitude and admiration on Chancellor Emeritus Jimmy Cheek and Provost Emerita Susan Martin, who hired me into that role and to so many lifelong friends I made during my seven years in Knoxville. 

I am deeply thankful to Washington and Lee University, especially to my Provost, Lena Hill, for giving me the opportunity to work with a group of incredibly kind, talented, and intellectually-engaged colleagues, as well as a community of law students who are beyond talented. 

Finally, I want to recognize a dear friend and mentor and my family, who have provided me with guidance, patience, and support when I needed it most over the years. 

Paul Marcus, the Haynes Professor of Law Emeritus at William and Mary Law School, who served as President of AALS in 2017, has supported and championed me (and so, so many others). Paul has lifted me, encouraged me, and taught me – so many lessons, including how to be an effective mentor. I cherish and thank him. I was fortunate to spend time with Paul and his wife Becca during this meeting. 

Finally, I’m grateful to my family for instilling in me an endless curiosity, a love of learning, and an awe of education. I especially want to recognize my partner, Michele Reeves, for whom I am grateful well beyond words. 

Courage in Action 

For the coming year, I have chosen a theme that I hope will inspire and embolden. That theme is “Courage in Action.” 

In the brief time we have together, I want to explain why I selected this theme, its relevance to the work of the AALS, and why I believe it is material to every person in legal academia and to every AALS member school. 

Lawyers are, and have always been, courageous advocates who exercise a steadfast commitment to justice in the face of unpopular views and controversy. We represent minoritized clients against oppression, those who are bullied. We represent those without means. We pursue positive social change and strive to do the right thing – always – when people are looking and when they are not. 

Law professors similarly display and model courage every day in an ever-changing classroom that reflects the tensions and schisms in society outside the walls of learning. Professors hold immense influence. We facilitate opportunities for the next generation of great lawyers. As law teachers, we open minds and prepare change makers. 

When you think of courage in the legal profession and in the legal academy, you might think of Constance Baker Motley, the first African American woman to serve as a federal judge. 

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman Supreme Court Justice, or Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first woman of color on the United States Supreme Court. You might envision Lutie Lytle, the first Black woman licensed to practice law in Tennessee and Kansas, and reportedly the first woman law professor in the nation (1898). 

Or, your mind might turn to more recent events and the challenges that university and law school leaders face when navigating free speech, academic freedom, and safety and belonging on campus. 

Today, as much as ever before, we need to infuse courage into the legal academy and in the lawyers and the leaders we are preparing and graduating. We need the courage to teach our students how to act civilly, even when they vehemently disagree with one another, and we need to teach students how to find common ground with those they oppose. We also must continue to graduate students who find the courage to defend democracy when self-interest or apathy would favor inaction. 

We might think that we know courage when we see it. But it’s worth thinking about how each of us can model courage and, more simply and fundamentally, how we define it. 

The Greek philosopher Aristotle famously identified four critical virtues, including courage, which he believed necessary for a person to flourish. Aristotle is thought to have equated courage with bravery and described it as the antithesis of cowardice. In his view, the brave and courageous man was “dauntless.” 

Brené Brown, a well-known management professor at the University of Houston who studies courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, has described courage differently, explaining “Courage originally meant ‘to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic.” Brown adds, “Heroics is important and we certainly need heroes, but I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics is often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today’s world,” Brown says, “that’s pretty extraordinary.” 

Brown has also said that courage is showing up “when you can’t predict or control the outcome.” And she believes that courage is contagious. 

So do I. 

Andra Day, the singer who broke through with the hit song “Rise Up” in 2015, describes courage with a voice that haunts and inspires: “And I’ll rise up/I’ll rise like the day/I’ll rise up/I’ll rise unafraid/I’ll rise up/And I’ll do it a thousand times again/And I’ll rise up/High like the waves/I’ll rise up/In spite of the ache/I’ll rise up/And I’ll do it a thousand times again.” 

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch’s character says to his son, Jem, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” 

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines courage, from the Latin word, cor, meaning heart, as “strength of mind to carry on in spite of danger or difficulty.” 

No matter how we define it, our roles – as law teachers and law scholars – demand it. 

Each of you is acting with courage in your teaching, scholarly pursuits, and service to law schools and universities, as well as in your communities, defined sometimes narrowly and often broadly. 

My challenge to all of us is to continue that important work. Let’s continue to build courage in ourselves and to urge others—our colleagues, campus partners, students, staff members, and alumni—to be courageous. Let’s continue to speak with a courageous voice of reason when others are overly emotional, using our platforms to oppose injustice in our daily lives—when it matters most. Not in a performative way. In a real way. During the faculty meeting, not in the hallway in whispers behind closed doors. In the classroom, not in broad, sweeping, meaningless generalized statements. 

Courage is in all of us. But, we have to activate it. We have to practice it and model it for our students. 

One of the many reasons I chose “Courage in Action” for this year’s theme is the many interesting program and presentation possibilities it provides. 

Deans could explore when courage requires them to speak publicly and when it dictates silence in the face of demands and pressure to speak. 

Conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and access have always required courage. I can envision panel discussions on courage in admissions, as law schools navigate the post UNC-Harvard Supreme Court decision. 

Every section of the AALS could benefit from a discussion about their work and courage – whether the academic support section or aging and the law section, children and the law, civil rights, election law, Islamic Law, law and religion, Women in Legal Education – every single Section. 

I look forward to the programming developed by these and other sections and the interesting Hot Topics and many other panels and discussions that will flow from our focus on courage. 

Thankfully, we have plenty of role models for, and examples of, courage. We are not starting from scratch. 

I often reflect on historical figures who personified and modeled “Courage in Action.” People like Barbara Henry – one of the greatest, most courageous teachers. You all know that Henry put her own life and reputation on the line when in 1960 she agreed to teach Ruby Bridges, the incredibly brave six-year-old girl who integrated William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in the face of threats and slurs directed to Ruby, her parents, and of course, Mrs. Henry. 

I think about how courageous people like Barbara Henry and Ruby Bridges were a necessary part of changing society. Law declared a change at a theoretical level. But it was the bravery of regular people who chose the tough path despite the emotional and physical risks. They were the ones who effected the real change. 

Another reason I chose courage as the theme for 2024 is its natural connection to the themes of past AALS Presidents. Presidents before me have chosen impressive, ambitious themes. You may remember many of them: Darby Dickerson’s “The Power of Words”, Vince Rougeau’s “Freedom, Equality, and the Common Good,” Erwin Chemerinsky’s “How Law Schools Can Make a Difference,” and Mark Alexander’s “Defending Democracy.”

All of these themes are powerful. They reflect work that needs to be done and ambitious goals for the future of the AALS and legal academia. But none of this important work can be accomplished if we are cowardly or indifferent, and if we don’t act with integrity, vulnerability, and an open mind and heart. Courage is an essential part of all this work – our work. 

During the 2025 Annual Meeting, I hope we will explore these issues as part of our programming because the need for courage permeates every part of the legal academe – whether you are a new dean, an experienced dean, you are in the arc of your career, you are a new faculty member – tenure-track, non-tenure-track, or adjunct, a communications professional, or professional working in fundraising and donor relations—all of us. 

Teaching law certainly requires courage. 

Classroom teaching requires not only knowledge, ability, dedication, and passion. It demands courage – every single day. Education, let alone, higher education, is under attack. We know that legislation is pending and has been adopted in Florida, Ohio, and in other states across the country – that defunds initiatives supporting inclusion and equity. These laws prohibit certain curricula, including courses on critical race theory and gender studies. The legislation prescribes penalties for faculty who are perceived as “biased” and for faculty who host classroom conversations on controversial topics. At the same time, we face this hostility to an inclusive classroom full of diverse ideas and ideologies, we are expected, indeed obligated, to prepare our students for an ever-changing and increasingly diverse client base that demands anti-racist, anti-biased, technologically advanced legal representation. 

These new laws also attempt to reduce the protections of tenure, and they increase pressure on us to conform our teaching to homogenous norms. 

Such changes add difficulty to an already challenging job of preparing law students and graduates for the ethical and professional practice of law – a truly noble profession, which gives us the responsibility and the privilege of preparing professionals to represent people at their most vulnerable: when they are facing a loss of liberty or property, bankruptcy, an attack on their reputation, or when they are staring at divorce or loss of custody of their children. 

Perhaps more than others, new law teachers need courage in the classroom, and more experienced faculty and administrators need to exercise courage by supporting, mentoring, and helping them build the confidence to develop their own voices and skills. 

Clinical law professors have always faced challenges and resistance, requiring courage as they represent our most vulnerable populations. These clinics and those who run them often face political and social pressure to abandon this representation when it is most needed and when it becomes the most effective. 

Our research and scholarly excellence also require courage. 

While academic freedom is an oft-uttered expression, we know that our research and published works are sometimes produced with trepidation that we will face censorship or retribution. It takes courage to say something unpopular, especially today with the risks associated with social media and with the possibility of doxing. 

We also must exercise courage in choosing and pursuing service to our communities and for the profession. 

This year alone, law deans across the country received multiple demand letters. We received letters alleging that law schools were reserving faculty positions and student admissions positions based on race and gender and threatening to sue in response. Deans also received multiple letters from various law firms, demanding that deans solve antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, and other forms of bigotry on their campuses. 

Some of these threats are designed to intimidate and to change behaviors, including how we teach and what we write and publish. They may discourage us from expressing ideas and speaking on controversial topics, no matter how important the topics may be. 

In times like these, we all must reflect on effective actions we can take to empower each other to say what should be said to foster an environment in our classrooms and in our law schools in which we can debate popular and unpopular ideas while fostering a sense of belonging. 

The Association of American Law Schools, with its mission to advance excellence in legal education, is committed to supporting faculty, deans, and all other members of the legal academe, as we wrestle with these and other issues that bear on the core values of excellence in teaching and scholarship, academic freedom, and diversity, including diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints. 

As we enter the new year, I present this challenge: Let us all practice the courage to wrestle with these and other issues important to improving the legal profession, fostering justice, and serving our many and varied communities because we share a common sense of purpose. Whether we are part of a public or private, large or small, stand-alone school, or a broader university system, we grapple with similar questions: How do we advance legal education? How do we prepare our students well for the practice of law? How do we form spaces that are both inclusive and open to hearty debate and disagreement? How do we write scholarly works that both inspire and encourage, while questioning the status quo, the unjust, the biased, the racist, the antisemitic, the homophobic, the xenophobic, the transphobic, and that which is discriminatory against those who are othered? How do we support our communities and push them to adapt? How do we tackle new technologies and new pedagogies while keeping a curriculum that is proven reliable and effective? 

As National Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman said during her reading of “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration in January of 2021: “The new dawn blooms as we free it/For there is always light/if only we’re brave enough to see it/If only we’re brave enough to be it.” 

Over the next year, I will challenge myself, and the leadership of the AALS to continue to practice courage. 

To accomplish our most ambitious goals in legal academia, we must personify courage in action. 

Thank you – each of you, for the many ways in which you are already practicing and modeling courage in your classrooms, law schools, and through your scholarship. 

I hope you will join me in a continuing commitment to practice courage each and every day. 

I look forward to working with all of you this year, and I thank you for this tremendous privilege.