Margaret Sova McCabe didn’t want simply to be a law school dean. She wanted to hold the position at a public, land-grant and flagship university, and one that was a top 100 school as the legal profession is sensitive to rankings.
She found those things at the University of Arkansas School of Law, which named Sova McCabe as its new dean this past April. The law school ranked in a seven-way tie at No. 88 for best law schools in the United States last year, according to U.S. News & World Report. Also important to Sova McCabe’s decision to accept the job was her expertise in administrative law, and within that food and agriculture law. She knew Susan Schneider, a UA law professor and director of the LL.M. (Master of Laws) program in agriculture and food law.
Schneider said she met Sova McCabe about 10 years ago at a national conference for law professors and previously had emailed her and known about her through a network of attorneys and law professors who practice and teach agriculture and food law.
“She really understands that the work we are doing is really very globally relevant,” Schneider said. “Food security, food safety, sustainability and food production — those are just all issues that are really emerging as important issues worldwide. It’s wonderful to have a dean that appreciates that the University of Arkansas really plays an important role on that stage and really has a lot to offer in the area.”
Sova McCabe gives credit to Schneider for developing the program in agriculture and food law into probably the best in the United States.
“There aren’t many, but we have an incredible curriculum in food and agriculture law,” Sova McCabe said. “Those things all came together here.” She joked to others only three law schools fit her criteria of becoming dean, and when a friend showed her the announcement that Stacy Leeds was stepping down at the UA, she was interested.
Leeds, who was dean for seven years, became vice chancellor for economic development on July 1, the same day Sova McCabe officially became dean. Before Leeds, Cynthia Nance was dean for five years. Leeds and Nance continue to teach at the law school.
“Dean Leeds and Dean Nance are so well regarded nationally for their role as being women leaders in legal education,” she said. “They’re helpful to me because they really forged a path through a legal academy that at a time, especially when Dean Nance was dean, had not had that many women, and to be the third consecutive woman dean is really a testament to their excellent leadership.”
‘LEGACY OF LEADERSHIP’
Sova McCabe, who moved to the area in late July, was a professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law when she accepted the job in Fayetteville. She’d previously served in two associate dean roles and oversaw the school’s transition from a standalone private law school to part of a public research institution. Her first time in Arkansas was less than a year ago during the hiring process, and a dean search committee chaired by Todd Shields, dean of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, named her one of four finalists. The finalists visited the UA for interviews and to give a presentation, with Sova McCabe’s set as the final one. The UA announced in April she would be the third consecutive woman to be dean of the law school.
“We’re one of two schools in the country that’s had that legacy of leadership,” she said, referring to three consecutive woman deans. “The other is CUNY [City University of New York School of Law] in New York [City].”
The legal profession has been good to bring in women to law school and find them jobs in the field after school, but women leave the profession at a faster rate than men, particularly in private practice at larger firms, Sova McCabe said. It’s important for her, as the third consecutive woman dean, to make all students mindful that women are an important part of the profession and the challenges for them to remain in it, she said. The latter includes the ability to achieve similar pay and position in firms, and she said, as a woman dean, this allows her to shine a brighter light on the challenges.
“What we do every day is everything that needs to be done, frankly, to support the law school and its faculty, students and staff,” Sova McCabe said. “Deans think about the strategic direction of the law school, always assessing where it has opportunities to grow and move. Where it may need to improve based on student outcomes. How our climate is, you know, are staff and faculty happy here? How do our alums relate to the school. First and foremost, it’s really thinking about and getting others to align behind a strategic direction for the school and executing on that.”
‘EXCEPTIONAL SKILL SET’
Some of her goals for the law school are to expand opportunities for scholarships and fellowships for students, consult with businesses to determine what they are looking for in graduates and work with other colleges on campus to influence a better food system.
Sova McCabe oversees nearly 110 faculty and staff at the law school and reports to Jim Coleman, provost and executive vice chancellor for Academic Affairs at the UA, who hired her.
“Margaret has demonstrated over her first seven months an exceptional skill set for this role,” Coleman said. “She is intelligent, a strong legal scholar, energetic, a vibrant and thoughtful leader, a careful listener, a data-driven decision maker, well organized, truly has passion for the work of faculty and for the success of students and exudes enthusiasm for the legal profession, while also being acutely aware of the challenges facing legal education. She is an effective communicator who easily builds trust because of her genuine and candid style.”
Coleman said Sova McCabe has established a Public Service Summer Fellowship program allowing between five and seven students to complete public service work while each student receives $5,000, provided by donors. He also spoke about how she’s adapted to the UA, which has a different budget model than the University of New Hampshire, and that her past experience has helped her to be effective in the UA’s budget development and management process.
Sova McCabe said she has enjoyed getting to know the people of Northwest Arkansas and how friendly and helpful they’ve been. The same goes for the people at the UA and the law school, and also, the community spirit around the school. She wants to learn as much and as quickly as she can about the school and its traditions. When she came to Northwest Arkansas, people would say how it’s a best-kept secret, or there’s so much going on in the region.
“It’s true,” Sova McCabe said. “It’s really fun to come to a place like this which is really vibrant but may not be that well known nationally and to find out all that’s here and all that it has to offer.”