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Professor Twila Perry Wins Prestigious AALS Clyde Ferguson Award

For so many reasons, it is fitting that Twila Perry has won the 2012 Clyde Ferguson Award from the Minority Groups Section of the Association of American Law Schools. 

The section’s highest award, which will be presented at its business meeting during the AALS annual meeting in early January, the Clyde Ferguson Award recognizes “an outstanding law teacher, who in the course of his or her career has achieved excellence in the areas of public service, teaching and scholarship.” The award is particularly intended for law professors “who have provided support, encouragement, and mentoring to colleagues, students, and aspiring legal educators.”

Professor Twila Perry
Professor Twila Perry at the law school.

Perry, who is Professor of Law and Alexander T. Waugh Scholar at Rutgers School of Law–Newark, is among the country’s leading legal scholars on issues of race and family law. She is widely recognized for her influential publications on the intersection of critical race theory, feminist legal theory, and family law, and is especially applauded for her work on transracial adoption and child placement decisions. One law professor, writing in support of the Ferguson Award nomination, described Perry’s work as “path-breaking scholarship that over and over again takes up highly sensitive issues in family law and subjects them to a thoughtful, incisive and transformative analysis focused always on expanding our understanding of the role of racial and gender subordination in the configuration of family law, its effects on real families, and its implications for achieving a nonracist and otherwise just society.”

Professor Perry has often been a speaker at conferences on family law. Her law review articles are frequently cited in articles by other scholars, are excerpted in a number of anthologies, and are often cited or excerpted in U.S. casebooks on family law, gender and race. In addition, two of her articles, “No Fault Divorce and Liability Without Fault: Can Family Law Learn from Torts?” and “Transracial Adoption: An Analysis of Discourse and Subordination” have been cited in cases decided by the Supreme Court of Canada. For a select list of her recent publications, click here.

After 28 years on the Rutgers–Newark law faculty, Professor Perry continues to be an encouraging and dedicated teacher, as evidenced by her always well-enrolled electives in Family Law, Children and the Law, and Race, Gender and Tort Law. She has even written about the complex pedagogy surrounding the teaching of one of her key interests (see “Thinking and Teaching About Transracial Adoption,” in 12 Focus on Law Studies 4, 1996). Further, she is an involved member of the law school community, who is particularly active in supporting the Minority Student Program and an effective advocate and leader on faculty diversity issues.

I believe that you can never really pay back those who helped to open doors for you. What you can do, though, is to put forth your best efforts to help those who come behind you and to invest in people you believe will use their success in positive ways.

As enthusiastic as Professor Perry’s colleagues in the academy are about her insightful contributions to legal scholarship, they are even more ardent about her warmth and generosity as a mentor to junior scholars – at Rutgers–Newark as well as other law schools – and to faculty and students of color. Not as readily computed as are publications and presentations, Perry’s support and counsel have had an intangible impact perhaps best expressed by a former Rutgers–Newark colleague who stated: “The academy is a better place because of her.” 

Finally, what makes the presentation of the Ferguson Award especially fitting is that the late Harvard Law professor C. Clyde Ferguson, whom the AALS award honors, was the first tenured African American and the first tenured man of color on the faculty at Rutgers School of Law–Newark, where he began his academic career — Twila Perry is the first tenured female African-American professor and first tenured woman of color on the law school faculty. 

Perry discusses her career and her teaching and scholarly interests in the following Q&A:

Why did you decide to go to law school and to become a law professor? 

I decided to go to law school while I was in graduate school in social work. I discovered that my primary interest was in social policy and I felt that I could be more effective as a lawyer than as a social worker. After practicing law in a few different settings for several years, I knew it was time to make a long-term career commitment. I wanted the freedom to be able to think, read, write and speak about issues that interested me and that I felt were important. Also, I was impressed by the fact that the law professors I knew still seemed to love their work after having been in the academy for many years.

What inspired your scholarly interest in family law and, in particular, in the role of race and gender in family law?

I have always been interested in issues involving race. My attention to gender issues came much later, after I entered the legal profession and saw and understood the impact of gender on women’s professional opportunities. It was then that I began to think more deeply about the similarities and the differences between issues of race and issues of gender in people’s professional and private lives. Family law is an area in which issues of race and gender insect in both of those contexts.   

What are the most notable changes you have seen in this area of law in the past 25 years?

In the family law classes I taught during the mid-1980’s, students often seemed uncomfortable discussing same-sex marriage and it was very rare for a student to speak out in favor of it. Today, the vast majority of law students in my family law classes seem to support same-sex marriage –indeed, it is rare for students to express opposition to it.

Family law continues to change rapidly in many areas: changing conceptions of gender roles, the dramatic increase in cohabitation, and rapid developments in reproductive technology present cutting-edge issues. The legitimacy of the institution of marriage itself is being questioned. Contract law and constitutional law are increasingly important in family law analysis. Feminist theory is having a major impact, but much more needs to be done on the intersection between family law, feminist theory and race. That is where my work comes in.

Your colleagues in the legal academy are effusive in their praise for your support of their scholarship and careers. What is it about mentoring that you find rewarding?

I think a lot about both the past and the future. I am clear that the opportunities I have had were the result of the efforts and sacrifices of many people – people I knew and people I will never know. I believe that you can never really pay back those who helped to open doors for you. What you can do, though, is to put forth your best efforts to help those who come behind you and to invest in people you believe will use their success in positive ways.

What do you enjoy most about teaching law students?

I teach both family law and torts. I enjoy teaching them equally, but I derive a particular satisfaction from teaching students in their very first semester of law school. Over the course of the semester I am able to watch, almost on a daily basis, the process of first-year students learning to think like lawyers. It is a wonderful thing to see!

You’ve lived in Harlem for many years and are writing a book about its recent gentrification. Tell us something about the book and how it intersects with your teaching and research. 

I was born in Harlem and lived there until I left for college. After living in a number of different places, I returned to live in Harlem in 1988 in a cooperative established by African-Americans in 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression. The cooperative survived the Depression and continues to thrive today.

At the present time, Harlem and communities similar to it are undergoing a process of gentrification. I believe that narratives about gentrification often ignore longstanding, successful African-American institutions such as the cooperative I live in and often minimize the threat of displacement to longstanding residents of the communities being changed. My book is an effort to address both of these concerns. The book is a bit of a departure from my specific focus on family law, but gentrification is a process that does have a significant racial impact and an impact on families.