New law school dean is inspired by social justice

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Drawn to the law by her desire to see people treated fairly, Jelani Jefferson Exum recalls being impacted by injustices she saw growing up in New Orleans. 

“It was clear to me from an early age that people were treated differently based on their race and socio-economic status, and that never seemed fair to me,” says Jefferson Exum, the new dean of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. “I saw studying law as a way to understand why things were that way, and practicing law as a way to fight for people to be treated fairly despite their circumstances.”

Jefferson Exum, who started her new role on July 1, is the second woman, and first Black female, to serve as the school’s dean.

“I’m extremely honored to be the first Black dean at Detroit Mercy Law,” she says. “I’m thankful for the path forged by our outgoing dean, Phyllis Crocker, the first woman to hold this position. Women and people of color are often left out of these sorts of leadership roles because our unique contributions historically have not been valued.  So, it’s exciting to be dean at a moment when our voices are being embraced in academia. 

“In 2021 there will be 28 Black women law deans in the country. It’s a privilege for me to be a part of that number and to model for others what law leadership can look like, as so many of those women have done for me.”

Serving as the Philip J. McElroy Professor of Law for the past two years, Jefferson Exum enjoys seeing Detroit Mercy Law's social justice mission play out in action. 

“It’s been truly inspiring to watch my colleagues and students use their work inside and outside of the classroom to advance justice for our community,” she says. “I feel very fortunate to be a part of a law school where social justice is an active mission, because a dedication to actual service through the law is what has fueled my own career passions.”

A law school professor for the past 14 years—at Tulane Law School, University of Kansas School of Law, University of Michigan Law School, University of Toledo College of Law, and Detroit Mercy Law – Jefferson Exum has most enjoyed helping students realize their place in shaping the law. 

“In turn, each semester the students help me to imagine more and more ways to push for increased justice and equity in the law,” she says. “Students are a wonderful source of insight into the future of law. I've taught at many institutions and at each school, I’ve had students who have pushed me to reimagine the promise of law. They’ve inspired my own research on punishment and policing reform through their questions, outrage, curiosity, and dreams.” 

Student success is a top priority for Jefferson Exum—and a lot of her work will be focused on raising support for bar preparation and academic support programs so that all the students—regardless of their background—can succeed.

“I’m committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, but that means more than just maintaining our already-diverse student and employee body—it also means ensuring we’re supporting our students so we have an environment in which they can all thrive,” she says.

Social justice is key to the Jesuit and Mercy traditions at Detroit Mercy Law, she adds.

“So, one of my major goals is to deepen our connection to the Detroit community so that we, as a law school, are instrumental in working toward legal and social equity in our own community. I'm proud of the work Detroit Mercy Law already does for the community and for our students, and I’m excited about working to make our programs even stronger and ensuring our reputation reflects the impact we’re making.” 

Jefferson Exum has spent most of her academic career as a sentencing scholar advocating for just and goal-oriented criminal punishment; and her more recent policing reform work is informed by her work on sentencing. 

In 2014, she was asked to give a TEDxToledo talk on the death penalty, and during the time she was preparing that talk, Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. 

“I ended up delivering a TEDx talk that year called, ‘The Death Penalty on the Streets,’ in which I called for the same sort of human dignity approach that the law, at least theoretically, embraces in the death penalty context to be applied to our rules about policing,” she says. 

“The death penalty is falling out of favor, and even in states that still hold on to it, the Constitution does not allow for death to be imposed arbitrarily, inhumanely, or when such a punishment would not be proportionate to the crime. However, the disproportionate use of police force against Black people exhibits all of those ills.” 

After giving that talk, Jefferson Exum began incorporating a focus on police reform into her work. 

“But, I come to it with the same questions I ask in my research on punishment reform—what are we trying to accomplish through policing and how can we re-think policing in a way that recognizes the dignity of human life by developing rules designed to save lives, rather than using the law to protect the taking of those lives,” she says.

“In answering those questions, we have to confront the systemic consequences of decisions about policing on African American communities. My work in both sentencing and policing highlight systemic racial bias, and I try to offer new ways to think about the goals of our criminal justice system in order to alleviate the consequences of that bias.”

Jefferson Exum chairs the advisory board for the Neighborhood Defender Service (NDS) of Detroit, that world-class holistic criminal defense service to Wayne County residents.

“When I was in law school, I thought I’d be a public criminal defense attorney because I was very interested in helping to ensure people are treated fairly in the criminal justice system,” she says. “The Neighborhood Defender Service, which started in Harlem, was my model of the best of the best of public defense.  So, now—though my career has taken a different route—I’m so honored to be affiliated with NDS Detroit as the Chair of the Board of Advisors.

“NDS pioneered the holistic defense model, which uses an entire team to address the legal and social needs of their clients. As Board Chair, I’m able to support the important work NDS Detroit does in the Detroit community to protect people from being needlessly lost in the criminal justice system.”

Jefferson Exum also serves as the Foundation Chair for the Oakland County Chapter of Jack and Jill of America, a leadership organization formed in 1938 during the Great Depression by Black mothers with the idea of bringing together children in a social and cultural environment.

She also is a member of the Oakland County chapter of The Links, Inc., one of the nation’s oldest and largest volunteer service organizations of Black women. In 2005, Jefferson Exum joined the New Orleans Chapter in which her mother and four sisters also were members.  

During the pandemic, Jefferson Exum was teaching her law students remotely from her home in the Oakland County village of Beverly Hills, while supervising the virtual schooling of second-grader Zora, 7; kindergartner Xavier, 5; and 3-year-old Isaiah, who had to be attended to as well. She and her husband Lowen would trade-off
supervision duties while the other spouse worked. 

“It’s been chaotic and wonderful at the same time,” she says. “While my children would crash my classes and meetings, I also got mid-day hugs and cuddles, and was able to observe them interact with their teachers and friends. And most important of all, they were happy and healthy.

“I’m grateful I was able to keep them at home because I know so many people were unable to do that during the pandemic. So, I count it as a blessing, and that's what I’ve focused on when the days got long and tiring.”

In her leisure time, Jefferson Exum enjoys reading, traveling, and going out to eat great food.

“Naturally, I'm a foodie since I grew up in New Orleans,” she says with a smile. “I also love making up silly songs and stories and having dance parties with my kids.”

For the New Orleans native, the “Big Easy” will always be her first love, but Jefferson Exum notes there is a lot about Detroit that reminds her of home. 

“Well, not the weather, of course! But, I really enjoy the cultural diversity, the art and music scenes, and the rich history. And, I love the architecture of Detroit,” she says. 

“But, most of all, I really appreciate that people from Detroit are hard-working, proud, and love their communities. That’s what makes this place feel most like home to me.  I'm so excited to be able to deepen my connection to Detroit as the next dean of Detroit Mercy Law.”

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