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Wednesday, March 7, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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UW law school names African American dean

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The University of Washington School of Law has selected University of Iowa professor W.H. "Joe" Knight Jr. to be its new dean.

Pending approval from the UW Board of Regents later this month, Knight will become the 13th dean and the first African American to lead the 101-year-old law school.

Among his first challenges will be increasing minority enrollment at a school hit hard by Initiative 200, which banned affirmative action in state hiring and admissions.

Before I-200's 1998 passage, the law school accepted 14 African Americans out of 61 who applied. Eight of those enrolled. Two years later, there were 26 black applicants, a 57 percent dropoff, and of the six who were accepted, only one enrolled, said Associate Dean Richard Kummert.

The dropoff was smaller for Hispanics, falling from 71 applicants in 1998 to 62 in 2000.

"Obviously, (I-200) had a negative effect, but I think there are some simple ways to begin turning that around," Knight said by telephone yesterday from Iowa. Those include "a broader recruitment effort, making contacts with larger numbers of students and persuading them that the (UW) will be a welcoming place for them."

Knight said he would make recruitment trips and try to forge links with historically black colleges, a tactic he said has helped Iowa's minority recruitment.

"My own personal experience as a person of color is that when I applied to law school, I looked for people who looked like me," Knight said. "I think having a dean of color will send a powerful message to prospective students that this is a place where students can both see themselves and that this is a place where they can succeed."

The importance of lawyers

Knight said his goals include increasing the school's national visibility and encouraging more collaboration with other campus departments.

Knight spoke of the importance of lawyers in improving communities.

"I'm a very big believer in the 19th-century ideal of lawyering, like Oliver Wendell Holmes," he said. "It is the tradition of a great civic citizen, willing to do what's necessary to build his or her community."

Knight, who earned his law degree from Columbia University, has been a professor at Iowa's College of Law since 1988, specializing in commercial law. He has also focused on critical race theory, a field of study that emerged in the past decade looking at the impact of race in the legal system.

Before entering academics, Knight was associate counsel and assistant secretary for four years with Colonial Bancorp in New Haven and Waterbury, Conn. He is a member of the board of directors of State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance.

He has had many offers

During his stay at Iowa, Knight was heavily recruited by other universities.

In 1999, he was a finalist for dean at the University of North Carolina's School of Law in Chapel Hill. And he has turned down three dean positions in the past, including an offer from Seattle University in 1995.

The timing wasn't right on those occasions, he said yesterday, explaining he wanted more time with his family. He has a 15-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. His wife, Susan Mask, is a lawyer and assistant to the president at the University of Iowa. She also serves as director of the university's affirmative-action office.

Knight will replace Roland Hjorth, who steps down in June after six years as dean. He is expected to return to the faculty after a leave of absence, Kummert said.

Knight's selection comes just eight days after the law school named Robert Anderson to head its Native American Law Center. Anderson is a leader in the study of natural-resources rights, tribal sovereignty and other issues in Indian law. He was a special counsel to former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Ray Rivera can be reached at (206) 464-2926 or rayrivera@seattletimes.com.

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