Louisiana higher education leader studying for law degree
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The leader of Louisiana’s largest university system has a new hobby in his off hours, pursuing a law degree.
University of Louisiana System President Jim Henderson is taking law classes at night through the Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, and has reached his second year in the program. He’s taking 11 credit hours this semester — all on Zoom — from his kitchen table. Classes are Tuesday and Thursday nights and a couple of hours on Saturdays.
“It’s a personal pursuit, not a professional one,” Henderson told The Acadiana Advocate.
The head of the nine-campus university system with more than 90,000 students hopes to complete his part-time law program in three or four years.
“I’m keeping my other obligations in mind,” Henderson said. “That’s the beauty of the part-time program and the way Southern has set it up.”
Not that it hasn’t been a challenge.
Henderson had to drop a class in fall 2020 when Hurricanes Laura and Delta wreaked havoc on many of his system’s campuses, with the worst damage at McNeese State University in Lake Charles.
Law Center Chancellor John Pierre said Southern accommodates students from busy backgrounds — such as former Gov. Mike Foster, who attended law school there while in office.
“Evening law students balance work, families and everything else,” Pierre said. “But (Henderson) is doing it successfully. In spring 2021, he was off to a good start and then COVID (variant) hits. We had to make some schedule adjustments, get him out of his normal cycle. We got him through the summer. He’s doing well, real well.”
Henderson, who has led the UL System for five years, started his law school journey with encouragement from two women: Ashley Mitchell-Carter, a Southern University Law Center alumna and former director of governmental affairs for the UL System, and Henderson’s wife of 28 years, Tonia.
Mitchell-Carter was the “impetus” to getting him started, he told the newspaper. Henderson said he would challenge Mitchell-Carter in conversations about legal matters. She, in turn, would encourage him to pursue a law degree and told Pierre she thought Henderson might be interested.
The young lawyer died unexpectedly on a holiday weekend in 2019. When Henderson consoled her mother, she told him, “She really wanted you to go to law school.” Later, he mentioned his desire to go to law school to his wife, who responded, “Why don’t you?” That was all the encouragement he needed.
Right now, Henderson doesn’t see himself practicing law as a career.
“That’s not the driver,” he said. “It’s about the process. I’m inclined to read — a lot — and it helps me in my current work. It develops critical thinking skills. It has made me more effective as a leader.”
But he said providing pro bono work for people who can’t afford a lawyer might be a possibility someday.