Kimberly Mutcherson began her legal career as a public interest lawyer in Manhattan, advocating on behalf of underserved or marginalized individuals, communities, and causes.
But as an acting assistant New York University law professor 20 years ago, she discovered she had a gift for teaching. “I loved being in the classroom,” said Mutcherson, who sees her new role as co-dean of the Rutgers Law School as expanding her commitment to legal education, as well as public service.
“I care a lot about doing work that is not just for other legal scholars, but has the potential to be meaningful in people’s lives,” she told me last week, on the day her appointment was announced by Phoebe A. Haddon, chancellor of Rutgers University-Camden. “I describe myself as an academic activist,” she said.
A Rutgers Law faculty member since 2002, Mutcherson has taught courses such as Torts, South African Constitutional Law, and Bioethics, Babies, and Babymaking. She also has served as the school’s vice-dean. Rutgers Law School has 414 students in Camden and 747 in Newark, where David Lopez serves as co-dean.
“Kim Mutcherson ... is passionate about the value of a legal education [and] sees with clarity the role of the law in protecting individual rights,” Haddon said in a statement. The chancellor also described the new co-dean as “positioned to build upon the energy and momentum” of Rutgers Law.
“Certainly our mission is to train lawyers,” Mutcherson, 46, said. “But we’re also part of the Camden community. ”
Mutcherson is the first woman, first African American, and first LGBTQ person to serve as co-dean of Rutgers Law. She grew up the daughter of two medical professionals and the niece of a Superior Court judge, surrounded by “wonderful, successful black folks” in suburban Washington, D.C.
“From the age of 10 I knew I wanted to go to law school,” she said. “I saw the law as a helping tool, as a way to improve people’s lives.”
A 1997 Columbia Law School graduate who also earned a B.A. in history from the University of Pennsylvania, Mutcherson lives in Collingswood with her son Max, 13, and daughter Josephine, 10.
She often writes about issues related to reproduction, parenting, and families; her published papers have titles such as “Procreative Pluralism” and subjects that include disabled parents and the health-care decision-making rights of adolescents.
Mutcherson said being a mother whose children “were conceived in a doctor’s office, not in a bedroom,” as well as her experience as a black woman who identifies as LGBTQ, help her “understand the struggles” of others.
“I’m really interested in people who come to parenting in ways that are considered unusual … [and] in people who have been cut out of parenting,” she said. “I’m interested in how parenting, and family, are ways to define who is a worthy citizen, and who is not.”
Her concern about access to medical services of all kinds has inspired a project Mutcherson and her law school colleagues have been working on in partnership with the Camden Coalition of Health Care Providers.
Free legal services are provided to “folks who have a range of medical needs” but are unable or reluctant to get help because of outstanding warrants, or issues related to housing, child support, or disability insurance disputes, she said.
“We’re focused on providing direct services, but all of us recognize these issues are systemic. There are systems that are failing people,” said Mutcherson. “We’re looking for ways we can work as a community to help people who find themselves in really untenable circumstances.”
Haddon said these efforts by the new co-dean, as well as longstanding Rutgers programs such as legal services for the community, embody the university’s commitment to civic engagement.
“Kim is well-known for the really cutting-edge work that she does,” the chancellor said from New Orleans, where she received the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of American Law Schools.
Haddon also described Mutcherson as “a collaborative leader” with “an energetic vision” who will help Rutgers Law and Rutgers-Camden “in our relationships with Cooper [Medical School of Rowan University] and our continuing interest with developing relationships with the rest of the Rutgers community.”
Mutcherson said she does have mixed feelings about bringing so many “firsts” to the office of co-dean. The distinction presents a wonderful opportunity to inspire others — but also is a reminder of how such opportunities have long been few for women, African Americans, and LGBTQ people.
“I’ve gotten an amazing number of emails from former student, alumni, even friends from grade school,” she said. “The amount of enthusiasm I have is matched by lots of hopes out there. I am super excited to get started.”