(Originally published in the New York Law Journal on August 5, 2014)
Eduardo Peñalver's first stint in administration at Cornell University lasted less than a week.
The year was 1993. Peñalver, then an undergraduate, led more than 100 students in a four-day takeover of Day Hall, the administrative office building, after vandals had scrawled racial slurs and a swastika on campus artwork by a Hispanic artist.
The students demanded a meeting with Cornell's president to discuss what they saw as a lack of support for Hispanic students. Their list of grievances was so long, Peñalver told the campus newspaper at the time, "I think I could have a rally every day until the year 2016."
Today, Peñalver is rallying for, not against, Cornell University as the new dean of its law school-the first Latino to be appointed dean of an Ivy League school of law.
Peñalver, 41, took the helm July 1. He had taught law on campus for six years but left in January 2013 to take a position at the University of Chicago Law School.
He was drawn back to upstate New York as former law school dean Stewart Schwab was nearing the end of his 10-year term limit.
"Life kind of brought me to Ithaca over and over again," he said in an interview. "Intellectually, it feels like home. So I was eager to have the opportunity to help the institution grow."
Peñalver, a property law and land use expert who has also taught courses on law and religion, said he wants to convince prospective students that a legal education, especially one from a top law school, is still a wise investment.
At a school like Cornell, which consistently places in the top 15 of U.S. News and World Report's annual law school ranking, that may very well be true. Of the 2013 graduating class, 90 percent were employed in full-time, long-term jobs requiring bar passage nine months after graduation, according to American Bar Association statistics, compared with 57 percent of law graduates nationwide.
The Cornell Law class of 2014 is on track to surpass that, with about 90 percent working in such positions already. The majority take jobs with major law firms.
Unlike schools lower in the rankings hierarchy, which suffer from declining applications and the financial quagmires of forced downsizing, Cornell's applicant pool is relatively stable. Last year, it was the only one of New York's 15 law schools to see an increase in applicants. For the class entering this fall, applications were down slightly: 4,003 from last year's 4,098.
"The competition for the top applicants is pretty fierce, so that requires us to invest resources in attracting the very best applicants and get them to spend three years with us," Peñalver said. "That's a challenge for everyone up and down the rankings."
He sees his mandate as dean to raise money for more financial aid, faculty hires and an expanded loan forgiveness program for graduates entering public interest careers-"the things prospective students care about in making their decision," he said.
The school also intends to improve its presence in New York City, where about half its graduates start their careers. Peñalver said he is working to introduce an LL.M. in business and technology in partnership with Cornell NYC Tech, a $2 billion graduate campus being built on Roosevelt Island. Law students would be able to spend a semester on that campus, preparing them for a trend in tech startups hiring in-house counsel fresh out of law school. Pending regulatory approvals, the partnership could be ready as early as fall 2015.
"As long as we're able to deliver good results for our students, I think we can be confident that we will be able to fill our classes with students of the quality that we want," he said.
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