BY CLINTON DICK
“How are you holding up in school?” the woman seated across from me asked when I began the interview. “It must be time-consuming to be editor of the paper.”
So the ten-year tenure of Suzanne Richardson as Dean of Students at Harvard Law School ends with the same model she has sought to institute in her office: concern for the well-being of students. Richardson has been one of the most visible presences on campus; the person students call on Friday night when they learn their grandparent is dying and they need to go home or when they have a question as to why things are done a certain way at the Law School and whether that can be changed.
Her introductory question came naturally for a woman whose concern has been the well-being of others for most of her adult life. She received a bachelor of fine arts from Boston University in 1971 and taught kindergarten, second and eighth grades in Winchendom, an old mill town in western Massachusetts. She decided to move back to Norwood, Massachusetts in 1973 where she started her own business.
She says, “I did art designs for stores in New York City and Boston. As exciting as it was it was not very profitable. There is a reason people do not make a living out of art.”
At this time Richardson decided to apply to Harvard Law School because, in her words, “I could not think of a place that was more opposite to how I was used to thinking,” explaining that working at HLS would mean she would be confronted with tasks that she did not have a ready ability to handle.
She started as a secretary in 1977, but her talents moved her the following year to the Harvard Government Attorney’s Project, a student clinical organization which was the counterpart to Harvard Defenders. She applied to be the administrative director of the clinical program in 1981, a position where she says she was fortunate to work with several esteemed individuals.
“I worked for Gary Bellow, who will always remain one of the most amazing people I know,” she says. “I worked for Charles Ogletree, who was amazing. I have had some wonderful bosses.” It was at this point in her life that Richardson received an E.D.M (masters of education) from the Harvard School of Education. “Two things were clear to me at this time in my life. First, I really wanted to stay in academia. Second, the students here were the most interesting people I know. It was wonderful to be able to work with them.”
As was usual in her life, Richardson did not stay long in one place, and in 1988 she moved to the position of Director of Student Services. At that time Sarah Wald was the Dean of Students. “I am the third dean of students this school has ever had,” Richardson explains, continuing, “Sarah really created the focus and function of this office and I built from what she did.”
When Wald left in 1993, then-Dean Robert Clark appointed Richardson Dean of Students, a position she has held for the past ten years, but has been forced to give up due to her current battle with terminal cancer. She said she never made a public announcement about her illness, but that was a student-focused decision. “I did not want students to feel like they could not come into my office and talk about their problems [because of my illness.]”
Richardson will stay on at the Law School as the special advisor to the Dean. She wants to do research on issues that concern her, but which she has never had time to study. “For instance,” she says, “there are students who are parents here and there are issues that arise with that. People can take the research I am doing and do with it what they want.”
If the service Richardson will render after her departure matches what she has done as Dean of Students, the school will be most fortunate. When asked to not be modest and explain her accomplishments at the Law School, Richardson says one thing she had done is to make the administration more accessible to students. “It is pretty easy as a student to say the administration does not understand me and does not know what I want,” she says. “On the other hand the administrators here are concerned about student-related issues and it was unfair to have this divide.”
Richardson also saw a need for student leaders to know each other better. “The fact that they didn’t came as a huge surprise to me,” she says. “About four or five years ago I began to put together events for student leaders to get to know each other. That started with receptions and I took people to New Hampshire for a weekend where we got to know each other and got to understand what each other’s groups did. It is such a large school that it is easy to get lost in the shuffle.”
Richardson also says she has sought to make the office more consistent and fair, so that students with a problem “would not have to ask whether the Dean of Students likes this student more or question her personal views.” She has also pushed students to take charge of a problem instead of only looking to the administration for help.
“Earlier this year there was a student who was concerned about elections,” Richardson explains, “I met with him and he asked why the school does not do elections online. So I suggested that the student research this issue because I didn’t know. So he did and made a presentation to the Law School Council and now we are going to have elections online.”
“That is what I like to do, talk to students and partner with students, “she says.
“I can’t do everything, and I don’t think any Dean of Students can, but you can utilize the resources out there and the students are the major resource.”
That may be the case, but others recognize the resource that has been Suzanne Richardson. Dean Elena Kagan says, “Over the course of a decade, she was the school’s greatest and most consistent champion of students. She did a huge amount – more even than students knew – to improve the quality of student life at the Law School.”
Enice Matera, who is the Student Services Officer and HLS Disability Coordinator, echoes as much. “Working with Suzanne Richardson through the years I have seen how she has devoted so much of her time to the concerns of HLS students,” Matera says. “The Law School is quite fortunate to have had Suzanne for the Law School community in this capacity.”
Kelly Colbourn, who also works in the Dean of Students office, says, “I’ve learned an incredible amount of invaluable lessons working with Suzanne. She has been a true advocate for students in every sense of the word and has set an example for student services that she should be very proud of.”