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Drawn to Washburn

New law dean focuses career on inclusion, civil rights

Carla Pratt

From The Ichabod - Fall 2018

Carla Pratt was drawn to Washburn by its civil rights history from its founding in 1865. When she learned of Washburn’s history as the law school that educated the lawyers who represented the plaintiffs and the State of Kansas in Brown v. Board of Education, she was drawn even more. She became dean of Washburn University School of Law on July 1 after Thomas Romig stepped aside after 11 years in the position. She previously served as associate dean for diversity and inclusion and Nancy J. LaMont Faculty Scholar at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law.

She sat down for an interview a few weeks into her new position to talk about why she wanted to come to Washburn and her initial thoughts while on campus.

What interested you about Washburn University School of Law?

I was really drawn to Washburn because of its history of inclusion. When I read that Ichabod Washburn made a financial contribution to save the institution, and learned that he was an abolitionist who believed in the dignity of all people, and that all people deserved the opportunity to be educated, I was very impressed. That really resonated with me because that’s who I am at my core. I thought, ‘This place would be a good fit.’ Also, I didn’t know, despite teaching constitutional law for years, this was the law school that educated the Scott lawyers who filed the case of Brown v. Board of Education. When I learned that history as well, it redoubled my enthusiasm about joining the institution.

Talk about the importance of the Brown v. Board decision and its basis in Topeka.

Topeka was unique in that it was one of the few places in the country that really had provided equal facilities for children of color to attend public schools. And so that’s why Topeka became such a good test case for the separate but equal principle that arose out of Plessy v. Ferguson. All black teaching staff were highly credentialed, so you’re talking about very qualified teachers. So what could be the problem? It was really the ideal case because, the other cases consolidated in Brown, you could argue they just need to improve the teaching staff or the facilities to make it equal, and that’s sufficient to meet the Plessy standard. But, the inclusion of Topeka really did center the Court’s analysis on the inherent nature of inequality in segregation itself. That case is probably the most significant Supreme Court case of the 20th century. It certainly changed the trajectory of many people’s lives, including mine. I wouldn’t be sitting here, as a beneficiary of integrated public school education if that case hadn’t been decided. For me, that case is fundamental in terms of America living up to its promise.

What drew you to law school and working in education?

I knew I wanted to help people in some way. I wanted to feel like I was doing something to make the world a better place. I applied to Howard Law School because of its civil rights history and thought I wanted to be part of that mission. I really do view myself as doing civil rights work as an educator. Serving in this capacity is the fulfillment of that initial ambition I had that motivated me to go to law school.

What are your initial reactions and observations about Washburn?

I’m very happy that the people here at Washburn are just so warm, welcoming and down to earth. Everything I saw as an outsider, I’m now getting to see from the inside, which is very reaffirming.

What community connections do you see as possibilities with Washburn Law?

If there are non-profit boards that could use an extra pair of hands and eyes, I think our students would benefit greatly, and I think the non-profit community would benefit as well. I see a symbiotic relationship there.

What is your message to all Washburn alumni and friends?

My message is really a plea, and that is we really need your support in bringing the Ideal Place building campaign to a conclusion. My plea is for those who have already given to consider digging even deeper to bring this goal to fruition. For those who have not yet given, to make a gift. No gift is too small or insignificant. With all of us working together, we can get there. My pledge to you is that I will be working with our fundraising and development staff constantly to make sure we are putting a shovel in the ground as soon as possible. I’m really excited about this project and reinvigorating the energy around it and getting it done.

And what excites you about the new Washburn Law building?

I’m very excited about some of the technological integration we can have in the curriculum that will allow us to deliver a 21st century education. I also think it will help us recruit students. Competition for students is fierce. To continue to get the best and brightest students to come to Washburn Law, we are going to have to deliver a facility that speaks to students and demonstrates to students we’re on the cutting edge and we’re not lagging behind in the legal education arena.


Spring 2022 The Ichabod cover. Sculpture on the lawn north of Memorial Union

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. View the current and past editions


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1729 MacVicar Avenue
Topeka, KS 66604 Phone: 785.670.4483