Social consciousness: Asst. U-M Law dean wins diversity award

By Kurt Anthony Krug

Legal News

Upon graduation from the University of Michigan Law School in 1996, Christine Gregory said that her "dream job" was to become the assistant dean of student affairs at her alma mater.

"Ironically, it was the job I wanted when I graduated from the law school many years ago, but no one could tell me how to get it," explained Gregory, 42. "I was told that I should simply 'be an excellent lawyer' and that I should apply after I had some legal practice experience. Life circumstances brought us back to Michigan and I was blessed in that I was at the right place at the right time--and I suppose with the right range of skills and experiences."

The Seoul, Korea native, who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and two children, has been the assistant dean of student affairs since 2007, where her duties include leading diversity and inclusion initiatives. She returned to U-M in 2004 as an attorney-counselor in the Law School's Office of Career Planning.

"(In my job), I oversee dual degree programs, externships, student organizations, and handle disciplinary matters. I love my job, but I'm most passionate about the work I do on issues of diversity and inclusion," said Gregory. "I play a leading role in helping the Law School achieve its institutional mission of realizing the benefits of diversity. I fundamentally believe that if diversity is to have any value, it must be put to use in real and practical ways. It must lead to positive, tangible outcomes, and bring about institutional change. For the past several years, I have pursued my work with this fundamental approach in mind."

Recently, Gregory won U-M's Distinguished Diversity Leaders Award. She was recognized for transitioning the Michigan Access Program (MAP), a race-conscious diversity program, into a race-neutral social justice leadership effort. After affirmative action was banned in Michigan, MAP was in danger of losing its original purpose in providing the most vulnerable students with the necessary support to ensure a smooth transition into law school, according to Gregory.

"Two years ago, we re-launched the program so that the emphasis was on offering students from a range of social identities--including race, gender, sexual orientation, ability and socioeconomic status--the opportunity to learn from one another's perspectives, collaborate across differences, and develop the tools and skills to navigate conflicts that are related to issues of race and identity," she said. "First year law students who participated in the program reported higher confidence levels, acquisition of inclusive leadership skills, and a stronger commitment to creating a socially just educational environment. I believe this leadership program is unique among law schools in the way that we link cultural competency to legal education--a critical skill--student activism, and the practice of law."

The way Gregory sees it, this award also belongs to the students and colleagues who nominated her for the honor.

"I wish I could have nominated them too because I could not have successfully implemented the program without their help," said Gregory.

Prior to her return to academics, Gregory began her law career in Washington, D.C., working as a staff attorney for the Neighborhood Legal Services program. Her practice areas included landlord-tenant litigation, public benefits, and family law.

In 2000, she was hired as the executive director of the Urban Alliance Foundation (UAF) in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing disadvantaged high school students with career-focused internships and access to college. During her time at the UAF, Gregory established the Health Alliance project, a public-assistance-to-paid-employment initiative that provided inroads for low-income young adults to pursue professional nursing careers.

Gregory has always rooted for the underdog.

"It's very natural for me to stand up for others. However, I admit that my initial reasons for pursuing law were economic. Neither of my parents finished high school. My mother immigrated to the United States from Korea and grew up very poor. She had to leave school to care for her younger siblings just after the 4th grade. My father grew up in South Carolina and dropped out of high school to join the Army," recalled Gregory. "Like many young African-American men that enlisted in the military during his generation, he earned his GED in the Army. While the Army provided a stable life for our family, neither of my parents were professionals. For me, becoming a lawyer was an opportunity to move up in class and socioeconomic status. After gaining some exposure to legal practice, however, I quickly realized that my 'root for the underdog' instincts were best suited for public interest work."

It was those leanings and growing up in a lower socio-economic class that made Gregory comfortable walking in many worlds.

"Looking back on my career, I realize that all of my jobs have allowed me to utilize this skill. As a legal services lawyer, many of my clients were homeless, disabled, or mentally ill. As their advocate, I had to frame their concerns in a way that opposing counsel and the court would find compelling, despite the racial and socioeconomic divisions that typically exist between these groups. (Working for the UAF), I went into low income D.C. neighborhoods and schools to talk to parents, teachers, and students about this program. I also spent a great deal of time 'downtown' securing jobs from elite law firms and high powered corporations for internships. Finally, at U-M, my role is to bridge the gap between faculty and students in a wide range of areas, including diversity and inclusion-related concerns."

For Gregory, the best part of her job is making a difference.

"Really, it's always been the best part of my job--any job that I've ever held," she said. "It's important to me to make a difference in the life of my clients by solving a problem that has been the source of great stress and anguish, helping high school students from under-resourced neighborhoods begin to see themselves as young budding professionals, and in my work here at (U-M) to create an inclusive learning environment so that everyone, regardless of social identity, can fully participate in all of the opportunities the Law School has to offer."

Published: Mon, Dec 10, 2012