Verna Williams is the first African-American dean of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Law. A Harvard Law School graduate, she’s had a rich career full of public service—including arguing and winning before the Supreme Court—and recently helped Michelle Obama (yes, that Michelle) craft her best-selling memoir, Becoming.
As the new dean, what’s your vision for the College of Law?
I see us having an important role in the community, providing access to law. I want to build on [our partnership with the Municipal Court] and create a law firm where new graduates of law would help serve people. We’re calling it the Legal Access Project. There are maybe 12 or so of these across the country at law schools. We have a role to play; we have something to say about access to justice.
What was it like working with the former First Lady?
Basically I was the oral historian. I helped preserve what was happening at the time. She was one of the cool people I met at Harvard Law School … the first few times I was doing it, my hands were shaking because I really wanted to do a good job because it’s, you know, it’s the weight of history. Being in the White House—her house is a museum. And it’s the headquarters of the most powerful executive in the world. And then [the president] comes upstairs. I’m all fangirling, and he’s just Barack. It took a while to get back to normal and me teasing him and stuff like that.
What do you like to do in your downtime?
We do like to go out to eat. Allison [her daughter with husband David] loves going to Taqueria Mercado because she loves the horchatas. And Mazunte, we like to go there, too. Metropole, I like that place, too. One thing I’m doing? I take classes at Improv Cincinnati.
I love it. I love improv. It’s so much fun. I’m a playful person, and I need that outlet. It’s an opportunity to play, be creative, and it doesn’t require me to prepare, because it’s improv. Learning how to be in the moment, how to listen … these are all really good and important principles. I find myself listening differently, paying attention in a different kind of way.