Many of Berkeley Law’s women faculty gathered in November at a retirement party for Professor Eleanor Swift. When Swift started teaching at the school in 1979, she was one of just four women on the faculty.
By Andrew Cohen
After 35 years of enriching Berkeley Law in myriad ways, newly retired Professor Eleanor Swift received a spirited send-off during a recent faculty meeting.
Fellow Professors Jeffrey Selbin and Anne Joseph O’Connell spoke glowingly of Swift’s dedication to teaching, mentorship of junior faculty, and leadership in developing the school’s clinical and professional skills offerings.
“Nobody has done it better here,” Selbin said. “Nobody has cared more about our hiring and our teaching excellence. Eleanor taught so many of us how to be better teachers. She’s also the founding mother of our experiential education program.”
After practicing law in Houston with the firm Vinson & Elkins, Swift joined the Berkeley Law faculty in 1979 and went on to serve in several leadership posts. In 1992, then-Dean Herma Hill Kay appointed her chair of a special faculty-student committee to improve and expand the school’s clinical curriculum—a position she held for five years. Swift was also associate dean from 1998 to 2000 under Kay.
“Eleanor Swift is the very model of a good academic citizen,” Kay said. “She is loyal, while critical of policies that she considers unworthy of our school. She always raises sound points that will make us a better place for our students and our colleagues. My tenure was immeasurably aided by her efforts on the school’s behalf.”
Swift thanked Kay for partnering with her on key initiatives, and for entrusting her to be associate dean. “She knew that you couldn’t have a great law school without a great clinical program,” Swift said.
Changing the landscape
Kay’s upcoming book, on women law professors in the United States during the 20th century, chronicles a huge shift over the course of Swift’s career. Accredited law schools hired just 50 tenure-track women faculty between 1900 and 1969, but by 2001 the total number of women teaching at these schools had soared to 1,264.
Swift said that in the 1970s, Berkeley Law came under significant pressure from women students and alums to hire more women faculty. “When I was hired, I was the fourth woman on the faculty of approximately 40,” she recalled. “This is probably a higher number than in most major law schools, but nevertheless it was a lonely experience. As the faculty grew, women remained a distinct minority. It’s only in the past eight years or so that women have been hired at a rate that approximates the men. I think this has led to an important positive change in the retention and collegiality of the junior faculty.”
An expert in Evidence and Civil Procedure, Swift received Berkeley Law’s Rutter Award for Teaching Distinction in 1998 and UC Berkeley’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2000. She chaired the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Committee on Professional Development, and is a past chair of the AALS Evidence Section.
At the ceremony in her honor, Swift thanked her husband, Berkeley Law Professor Emeritus Robert Cole, for fueling her successful career. “This is where I might start to cry,” she said. “I’m grateful for his love, generosity, and support that helped me with each step in what I wanted to do while teaching here.”
Known as a caring and effective mentor for many junior faculty members, Swift was hailed for her dedication, optimism, and generosity. O’Connell described how Swift routinely gave new faculty helpful handouts to aid their in-class teaching, and how she improved their exams with perceptive feedback.
“Eleanor is simply a stunning teacher who gives great advice,” O’Connell said. “She’s constantly seeking advice for her own teaching, too. She also makes people feel so welcome here. When I started, there were far fewer women faculty, and she went out of her way to constantly invite me to coffee or lunch.”
In her remarks, Swift praised Selbin, Professors Stephen Sugarman and Jesse Choper, and former Professor Robert Post, now the dean at Yale Law School, for their roles in helping her develop Berkeley Law’s robust experiential education program.
She also expressed appreciation for Kay and Professor Kristin Luker, as well as former Berkeley Law Professors Marjorie Shultz, Andrea Peterson, and Rachel Moran, now the dean at UCLA School of Law. Swift called them “my sisterhood—my generation of women who paved the way for the amazing junior faculty we have here now, both men and women.”