Eduardo Peñalver: Mastering the Curve

by Kenny Berkowitz


In the year and a half between leaving Cornell Law School as a professor and returning as its sixteenth dean, Eduardo M. Peñalver had time to settle his family in the Midwest, teach at the University of Chicago Law School, co-author two articles about property law, speak at eight conferences, including one at Cornell, and think about a career move to academic administration. Then, as Dean Stewart J. Schwab approached the end of his second five-year term as dean, Peñalver decided to apply for the position, traveling to New York City for the first round of interviews. 

“What I remember clearest is how little I understood about the job,” says Peñalver, talking from home on Ithaca’s South Hill, four months away from becoming the new president of Seattle University on July 1. “That gave me an opportunity to learn more, to keep leaning in, and by the time I came to campus for the third round, I was in a much stronger position. At each stage, I could feel a change in my ability to shift from thinking as a professor to thinking as an administrator. It was a very steep curve, but I was learning the whole time, I was processing, and over those last twenty-four hours, I was very much on the upside.” 

1. At the Hoffman Challenge Course during orientation for the Class of 2018; 2. With a recent graduate in 2019; 3. With Markeisha Miner, dean of students, and New York State Attorney General Letitia James, during her visit to the Law School in October 2019; 4. With Matthew D’Amore, professor of the practice, at the opening of the Cornell Tech campus in New York City; 5. At the retirement celebration for Gregory S. Alexander; 6. With his wife Sital Kalantry, celebrating the 80th birthday of Allan R. Tessler, LL.B. ’63; 7. Talking with Clifford M. Greene ’76 at Reunion

Watching from the other side of the boardroom, Jens David Ohlin could see the change as it was happening. “I’d known Eduardo as a great scholar, a great instructor, and a great colleague,” says Ohlin, who currently serves as interim dean. “As we listened to him talk about how he’d approach the challenges of being dean, you could see this transformation right before our eyes. It was so profound, I could feel it, I think everyone in the room could feel it. We knew he was a natural, that he had great things in store, and being dean of Cornell Law School could certainly be one of them.” 

During Dean Peñalver’s tenure, Cornell Law boosted financial aid while maintaining one of the very best job placement rates of any law school. In fact, recent data from the Department of Education shows that Cornell has the best student debt-to-income ratio among all top law schools. 

Seven years later, as Peñalver readies for his next learning curve, Ohlin lists some of the milestones reached during Peñalver’s tenure. The Law School launched two new degrees and revitalized a third: the LL.M. program at New York City’s Cornell Tech, the online Master of Science in Legal Studies for business professionals, and the reenvisioned three-plus-three program for Cornell undergrads. It expanded experiential learning, adding new clinics in entrepreneurship, First Amendment practice, and farm workers’ legal assistance, and new practicums in civil disobedience defense, federal Indian law, movement lawyering, and tenant advocacy. 

Under Peñalver’s deanship, fundraising is up, with seven new named chairs, a loan forgiveness program that helps grads working in government and nonprofits, and scholarships that allow 40 percent of students to graduate without any law school debt. Admissions are up, with an increasing number of applications, an increasing quality in the applicants, and an increasing diversity in the student body. The numbers aren’t just rising—they’re growing in the face of unimaginable challenges, smack-dab in the middle of a pandemic that finds the Law School welcoming students to a hybrid of in-person and online courses, adjusting the academic and recruiting calendars, navigating changes in the LSAT and bar exams, and broadening legal aid outreach to the community. 

Asked to choose his most meaningful accomplishment, Peñalver doesn’t name any of them.

“The thing I’m most proud of is the group of people I’ve brought together for the Law School’s administrative team,” says Peñalver, whose tenure coincided with the retirement of some of Cornell Law’s most beloved administrators. “The group we have now, wonderful people who care deeply about our students and our institution, are superb in every way—and they’re also the most diverse leadership team in any law school anywhere in the country. I loved the meetings we’d have at the beginning of each week, with this group of people assessing where we’re going and trying to keep finding better ways to accomplish our goals. It’s been a real all-hands-on-deck effort, and that’s always the thing that makes me proudest. Because we couldn’t have accomplished anything without a strong leadership team.”

When Peñalver took the position, at a time when law schools were seeing their application numbers fall nationwide, headlines trumpeted Cornell’s hiring of the first Latino law school dean in Ivy League history. They enjoyed the irony, too, of seeing Cornell appoint a dean who’d helped lead a takeover of Day Hall as an undergrad. (The 1993 occupation, which lasted four days, led to the creation of the Latino Living Center.) Further down the column, the reasons for hiring Peñalver were clear: He had first-rate credentials as a magna cum laude graduate of Cornell (1994); a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford (1996); a J.D. student at Yale Law School (1999); a clerk for Judge Guido Calabresi at the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Second Circuit (1999–2000) and Justice John Paul Stevens at the U.S. Supreme Court (2000–2001); an associate professor at Fordham University School (2003–2006); a visiting associate professor at Yale Law School (2005–2006), Harvard Law School (2007), and University of Chicago Law School (2011); and an associate professor (2006–2008) and professor (2008–2012) at Cornell Law School, where he was fondly remembered. 

Nora Ali ’15, a former editor in chief of the International Law Journal, gives Peñalver credit for supporting her in organizing the ILJ symposium and securing a clerkship on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. “Whenever I needed a resource, he was there, and when I was concerned that I wouldn’t be competitive enough for a clerkship, Dean Peñalver provided reassurance and called every judge I applied to,” says Ali. “You could tell how focused he was on finding space for everybody to feel they belong. As a student, seeing that your dean is thinking of you first and foremost instills the confidence that you can focus on your studies, knowing you don’t have to fight to be understood.”

Over the last five years, per capita student debt at Cornell Law School has dropped by nearly 20 percent, driven by financial aid spending that has nearly tripled.

Students participate in team-building and leadership exercises during the first Professional Development Orientation in 2015

“At a lot of other law schools, there’s a thirty-foot pole between you and the dean,” says Emmanuel Hiram Arnaud ’16, who remembers asking Peñalver to review an essay he was writing for the Cornell Daily Sun. “I wanted him to just take five minutes to read it, and instead he emailed me back, saying the piece was fantastic, telling me I was a great writer, and asking if I’d thought about clerking, which honestly had never even occurred to me. That cemented my sense that I really did belong in this school and in this profession. He suggested a judge he thought I’d work well with, encouraged me to apply, reviewed my application materials, and rehearsed me the day before my interview, telling me to just be myself. That clerkship has been opening doors ever since.”

For Peñalver, whose own clerkships were two of the defining points in his career, the lessons learned in his twenties have lasted ever since. Now forty-eight, thinking about his initial interview at the Supreme Court, Peñalver remembers how Justice Stevens put him at ease “within seconds of walking into his chambers, which is the knack he has for bringing out the best in people.” Then, as they worked together, he quickly saw a jurist who embodied approachability, humility, and a sense of treating everyone with respect, which inspired great loyalty from his clerks, who still ask one another, “What Would the Justice Do?” 

From Justice Calabresi, who served nine years as dean of Yale Law School, Peñalver borrowed what would become a central metaphor of his administration. “When I started thinking about pursuing the deanship at Cornell, Justice Calabresi was the first person I called,” says Peñalver. “We talked about it, and he told me that a dean is a like a butler. That may sound falsely modest, but I think it’s actually true. The butler is not an unimportant person in the household. He makes a lot of decisions that influence everything else, but fundamentally, the job exists to serve the household. That’s really what a dean does, and it’s one of those images I keep returning to.” 

It’s come up again and again over the course of Peñalver’s deanship, like the time when students asked him to create a First Amendment clinic. (He worked with Mark Jackson ’85, who helped raise well over $1 million to launch one of the premier First Amendment clinics in the country.) When students asked him to make teaching evaluations available online, he brought the students and faculty together to make it happen. When students asked him to add intercultural training to student orientation, he and Dean Miner started small and kept building. (Learning to engage in dialogue across difference is now one of the highlights of orientation.) When asked by students to switch from letter grades to pass/fail during the pandemic-disrupted semester, he tasked a faculty committee with student membership to consider the question. (They recommended a change to pass/fail for the spring 2020 semester, with virtually every other top law school following suit.) 

In a pandemic year, Peñalver managed to balance all those interests while steering the Law School through uncharted territory of University COVID protocols, which were themselves responding to constantly shifting federal, state, and local guidance. Starting in mid-March, when the Law School shifted away from in-person instruction, along with the rest of Cornell University, Peñalver’s team initiated a series of administrative, financial, social, and technological responses to maintain safety without compromising the value of a Cornell Law degree—and then, after a break for summer, instituted a new set of protocols for the changing landscape of fall 2020. 

“Eduardo adapted the law school environment as well as anyone could, as well as anyone did, anywhere, to the challenges of the pandemic,” says Franci J. Blassberg ’77, adjunct professor of law and member of the Cornell Law School Advisory Council. “He prioritized in-person classes for first-year students, which was critical. He realized many law students wouldn’t be coming back for the fall 2020 semester, so he made Zoom teaching and learning easily accessible for both students and faculty, and he made sure class meetings and class recordings would work for international students. He wisely changed the times when second-year students apply for summer jobs, and he wrote to the bar examiners, asking them to permit remote classes. Each time, he had to reimagine a solution, and he did it all without missing a beat.” 

I know that students think of Eduardo as being student-centered, but as an alum, I think of him as alumni centered,” says Jacqueline Duval ’92, a member of the Cornell Law School Advisory Council and president of the Mary Kennedy Brown Society. “He was really focused on making sure the alumni office was strong, and under his leadership, alumni connections have really shone. When people graduate, they feel connected, they stay connected, and that’s a huge lift.

“These are very, very difficult days to be a law student,” says Gregory S. Alexander, A. Robert Noll Professor of Law Emeritus, who coauthored An Introduction to Property Theory (2012) and coedited Property and Community (2010) with Peñalver. “There’s the pressure to succeed, and if anything, it only increases at an elite law school, because you not only need to get a job, you need to get a prestigious job. And I’ve  never seen a dean as single-mindedly focused on student life, every day, before and during the pandemic, who made students feel truly integrated within the school, made them feel happy to be at Cornell. Let me emphasize that: happy to be at Cornell.”

For Alexander, who recommended Peñalver’s hiring as a professor in 2006, at the end of three years at Fordham, cowriting and coteaching with Peñalver has been “like a lesson between master and student, because I owe far more to him than he does to me. He’s incredibly smart, analytically acute, and a deep, quick, perceptive thinker.” In Peñalver’s writings, particularly Property Outlaws: How Squatters, Pirates, and Protesters Improve the Law of Ownership (2010, cowritten with Sonia Katyal), Alexander sees Peñalver’s roots in Catholic social thought, which Peñalver studied for his master’s in philosophy and theology at Oxford, taught as a professor at the Jesuit-led Fordham, and presented as the subject of his 2017  Faculty at Home seminar. 

“My faith has had its ups and downs, and there are times when I feel closer to it and times when it’s been more of a challenge,” says Peñalver, who will be the first lay president to lead Seattle University. “My faith isn’t the same as my dad’s, who has always managed to fully integrate it into his life and work, but it’s always been an important part of my identity as a person and as a scholar. I’ve always drawn insight and inspiration from the Catholic intellectual tradition, and I hope as dean I’ve done that at Cornell without imposing my values on other people, that my work somehow reflects those values and gives them light.” 

As he prepares to leave for the Pacific Northwest, Peñalver sees a commonality between Cornell’s land-grant mission of “any person, any study” and Seattle’s Jesuit mission of providing a progressive, values-driven education that emphasizes critical thinking, ethical reasoning, and public service. Located thirty-five miles north of Puyallup, where Peñalver grew up, Seattle U has 7,200 students, 65 undergraduate degree programs, a 50-acre campus in the city’s First Hill neighborhood, and many of the same challenges Peñalver faced here in Ithaca. And just as at Cornell, his first priority will be listening, learning, and connecting with the people around him. 

Eduardo saw the opportunity for creating an online master’s in legal studies that really caters to business professionals,” says Fouad Saleet, assistant dean for external education and Jack G. Clarke Executive Director of International and Comparative Legal Studies.

“When the announcement was made in October, it felt a little abstract, but now that I’m preparing for the move, it’s feeling a lot more real,” says Peñalver, whose wife, Professor Sital Kalantry, is joining the faculty of Seattle University School of Law and whose two teenage sons are looking forward to living near their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. “I’m going to miss coming into Myron Taylor Hall every day, and I’m going to miss the students, the faculty, the community, the alumni. 

“I had the good fortune of working for some really extraordinary deans and being inspired by their examples,” he continues. “I felt I might have an aptitude for it, and I thought the practicing lawyer part of my brain would really enjoy the problem-solving dimensions of administration, of helping things run better. What I didn’t realize was that every day would be different, and no day would be exactly what I’d intended, no matter how much I planned. To me, that’s been invigorating, and the times when the learning curve was steepest were also the times the work was most gratifying.”