Meet Dean Kellye Testy

By Joan Watt
Written for the Lawyer, Spring 2005

Kellye TestyKellye Testy has high aspirations for the Seattle University School of Law.

The new dean, who officially took office on February 15, is convinced that those aspirations are fully within the reach of a law school she has grown to love. Yes, love.

It’s a word Dean Testy uses openly and often when she talks about her relationship with the school.

“First and foremost, I am dedicated to our students,” she noted in a recent interview, held on an unusually hectic Friday afternoon in her second-floor office on the southeast corner of Sullivan Hall. “They are interesting and hard-working; they are genuine and caring.

“Many of them are first-generation college graduates. With them, I feel an almost visceral connection because I, too, am the first in my family to earn a college degree.”

Kellye holds her teaching colleagues in equally high regard.

“I truly care about our faculty, even those with whom I don’t agree philosophically,” she insisted. “I respect all of them, particularly for their common commitment to quality teaching. But I especially admire our more senior professors. When I think of what it took for them to launch this law school, basically ‘from scratch’ back in the early 70s, I’m doubly determined to lead this school with energy and compassion in their honor.

“And then there is the hard-working staff, whose members carry the operation of the law school,” she added. “I want them to know how much I admire the work that they do, and how deeply I believe that the running of this school is a collaborative effort. All of us are in this together, no matter what our particular titles or job descriptions.

“We are all servant/leaders. We are here to help our students become the best that they can be—and our school to become the best that it can be.”

The dean’s self-professed love affair extends beyond the walls of Sullivan Hall, as well.

“I love being a part of Seattle University and its Jesuit, Catholic tradition. The university mission tells us that learning for its own sake, while important, is not enough,” she explained. “Here we come to understand that the value of learning lies in the ways it equips us to make a difference in this world.

“The link between academics/theory/study and practice/action/social activism is central to the mission of our school. It permeates all we do—from the way we teach classes to the co-curricular activities we sponsor, from the students we admit to the faculty we hire.”

And finally, said Kellye, is the genuine affection of Seattle University for its School of Law.

“I love that the university loves the law school,” she noted. “We’re a core part of what they do and what they care about. They see the law school as contributing directly to their mission, because Seattle University wants to do justice, not just talk about it.”

But Kellye Testy brings far more to the table as dean than a genuine passion for all things related to the School of Law and its parent university.

The Indiana native grew up in the small town of Ellettsville, just outside of Bloomington. She was educated in the public schools, graduating from Edgewood High School along with about 150 classmates. Her teenage years were devoted to sports—she was a varsity athlete in volleyball, basketball, and track all four years of high school—and writing, mostly poetry and journalism. Summers were spent playing softball “in a very competitive league.”

“What got me to college was my interest in sports, not academics,” the professor-turned-dean mused. “Neither my family nor the schools I attended prioritized going to college. My softball teammates were college athletes and I used to join them at Indiana University on weekends for practice.

“It was there I got to know a lot of other IU athletes. That’s how I related to ‘going to college.’ Frankly, what motivated me to apply to Indiana was the chance to hang out with all of these friends and play ball!”

Kellye’s less-than-traditional route to college and her experience as a first-generation college graduate are aspects of the new dean’s life that influence her immensely, even to this day.

“I believe there are many paths to every destination, and that one does not always know at the outset the direction a life will take,” she said. “In addition, my background has taught me not to be swayed simply by ‘pedigree.’ There are a lot of reasons why some people do not go to elite institutions that have nothing to do with merit.”

As an Indiana University freshman in 1978, the star athlete’s passions quickly turned toward academics.

Kellye Testy

“I felt like a kid in a candy store in terms of all the intellectual opportunities,” she mused. “What I truly loved was literature, poetry in particular. But when I told my parents that I wanted to be a literature professor, they responded, ‘Can’t you do something practical and useful?!’”

Journalism seemed more “practical” to the neophyte scholar, so she focused her major studies in that direction, picking up a minor in Business along the way. Still, it was during her undergraduate years that Kellye’s interest in the law was first piqued.

“A course in Communications Law sent me to the law library for a project and, virtually overnight, I fell in love with the law. I remember trying to find New York Times v. Sullivan,” she noted, “and just sitting on the floor of the library reading case after case after case.”

On graduation from Indiana University a half year earlier than her classmates, the honors student moved to California, taking a job with a fast-growing company in the franchise business.

“I wanted to earn some money—and I wanted to get out of Indiana,” she quipped. “I planned to take about two years off and then try to go to law school.”

Two years became six for the Midwest transplant, as she moved from jobs in franchising to public relations to marketing where, she quickly discovered, “the people made more money and had more fun.”

“I then became a manufacturer’s representative for my company, selling, of all things, automotive service equipment. Even though I can’t change a tire to this day, I became quite successful at this work,” she laughed.

“In hindsight, I’ve realized it was my first ‘teaching’ job!”

By 1988, missing her family and deciding it was time to enroll in law school, Kellye applied only to IU-Bloomington. She admitted with a grin that she was not one of those tightly wound prospective law students to plan every aspect of her application with painstaking precision.

“I recall that I had just bought a house and was doing a lot of renovation to it,” she said. “I was in the midst of stripping wall paper in the kitchen at about 2 a.m. one morning and said to a friend, ‘I really think there’s something I’m forgetting to do, but I just can’t think what it is.

“About an hour later, I remembered: I was due to take the LSAT at 8 o’clock the next morning! Needless to say, there was no time for sleep, let alone study. But it all worked out, and back to IU I went, beginning studies in the summer accelerated program.”

Today a legal scholar of considerable note, Testy said she started law school with no expectations. She had been out of school for a while, she knew no one who had gone to law school, and her overarching goal was “just not to fail a course.” She achieved that goal and far, far more.

A summa cum laude graduate of Indiana University law school (actually, Kellye graduated first in her class), she was editor-in-chief of the Indiana Law Journal, a Chancellor’s Scholar, a John H. Edwards University Fellow, and a member of Order of the Coif. Along the way, she picked up a graduate minor in Women’s Studies.

“I know it will make a lot of people crazy when I say this, but I did not find law school all that difficult. It was a lot of work,” she acknowledged, “but it was not intellectually that complex.”

A large—and life-altering—piece of Kellye’s law school experience was meeting David Skover, her first-year Civil Procedure teacher who was a visiting professor at IU on leave from the University of Puget Sound for the 1988-89 academic year.

“David was wonderful,” said the dean. “He was vital in encouraging me to pursue an academic career, and the chief reason I ended up at Seattle U (then UPS). By the end of my first year in law school, I was sure I would eventually teach the law.”

How rapidly that career path would emerge was less clear-cut for Kellye, who held summer associate positions with the Chicago office of Kirkland & Ellis, and Indianapolis’s Ice, Miller, Donadio & Ryan; then, following graduation, went on to serve as a law clerk for The Hon. Jesse E. Eschbach, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

“I really liked working in a law firm setting,” she explained, “and thus was not at all sure I would go directly into teaching. But fate once again intervened when, as a 3L, I had the privilege of meeting Professor Barbara Babcock from Stanford, who was a guest speaker at the law school. Because I was the law review editor, I got to spend a morning giving her a tour of campus and taking her to lunch.

“As it turned out, she was a great mentor to me in terms of pursuing a teaching career. Meeting her was very important.”

Indeed. Following her 1991-92 clerkship, Kellye accepted a position as assistant professor at the School of Law, then located in the Norton Clapp Law Center in downtown Tacoma. With the exception of a year as visiting professor at Indiana University, she has been with the school ever since.

During nearly 13 years as a member of the faculty, she has made an enormous impact on the life of the law school and the greater university.

As a teacher, she has stood at classroom podiums before some 3,000 students. Her courses have included first-year Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporations and Public Policy, and Business Entities (Agency, Partnership, Corporations). Her other offerings have ranged from Securities Regulation and Payment Law to Economic Justice and Gender and Law, as well as a variety of seminars in related areas.

“I came to teaching with no formal training in it, as do most law professors,” Kellye reflected. “I followed my instincts, which, thankfully, were generally good. I remember my first Contracts class very fondly. It was a great experience; we all really connected.

“I remember my first UCC course very UNfondly. It was in Classroom 501, which was huge, had not been taught in over a year, and was full of last-semester 3Ls. Worse yet, Articles 3 and 4 had just been revised in Washington, but none of the textbooks had caught up yet!

“It was tough,” she went on. “I still recall the evaluation form completed by one disgruntled student who drew a dark line vertically through the ‘poor’ rating from the top to the bottom of the page, then wrote: ‘First time prof, I want a refund.’ Truthfully, I agreed with him!”

(Students who’ve taken courses from Kellye since then will tell you that a “poor” rating probably never again appeared on any form in any of her classes.)

“It is true that, over the years, I’ve generally communicated well with my students,” she noted. “I really want them to learn. I care a great deal about their development, and so I’ve just tried to be myself in front of the classroom, to share my power of the podium, and to do all that I can to enhance their learning.”

As an out-of-class student mentor and advocate, Kellye’s contributions are without peer. She has counseled, cajoled, congratulated, and cared for literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students and former students. Their admiration—and affection—for this law professor are sure to be pillars of strength on which the law school will stand in the years ahead.

The following anecdote is typical. On the day of this interview for Lawyer, a student walked into the dean’s office to touch base.

“I’m no longer enrolled in any of your classes, so at last I can tell you what I’ve been wanting to share for a long very long time,” she told her professor. “I’ve hesitated up until now, because I didn’t want you to think I was attempting to garner favor in order to get a good grade.

Anyway, I just want you to know that in the whole world, you are my hero.”

As a scholar, Kellye’s contributions to some of the nation’s leading law reviews have boosted Seattle University’s reputation among members of the academy and bolstered intellectual thought on a range of timely topics. Her writing has been published in journals from coast to coast, including the Duke Journal of Law & Contemporary Problems, Northwestern Law Review, the New York Journal of International and Comparative Law, California Law Review, and George Law Review, among others.

Speaking engagements at academic conferences have taken this teacher from one side of the country to the other, as well. A prolific public presenter, she has spoken on “Contracts and Socioeconomics” at the Association of American Law Schools annual meeting in Washington, D.C.; “Weaving Social Justice into the Law School Fabric” at the Society of American Law Teachers annual meeting, New York University School of Law; and “Adding Values to Corporate Law” at the University of Georgia Conference on Teaching Corporate Law.

She has been to law schools at Yale University and Cal Western, Tulane University and Toronto’s Osgoode Hall, the University of British Columbia and Duke University. The list goes on.

When it comes to community service, it well may be impossible to find a professor from any academic discipline who has done more to advance the intellectual vitality and promote the effective governance of Seattle University. Among the bold initiatives for which Kellye is best known are these:

  • founder and faculty director, the Center on Corporations, Law & Society;
  • founder and faculty adviser, the Seattle Journal for Social Justice;
  • co-founder and board of advisers member, the Access to Justice Institute; and
  • co-director, the Wismer Center for the Study of Justice.

But her work in more behind-the-scenes roles is equally impressive. She is a member of the university’s Faith & Justice Committee; a former member of the Development Committee for a J.D./M.B.A. program; a current member of the law school’s Self-Study Committee; and a past member of the university’s Strategic Planning Committee.

Given the plethora of credentials and Kellye’s personal style, there’s little wonder that members of the Dean Search Committee selected her to lead the law school after an extensive national search and despite the fact that interest in the position among academics was higher than at a time in the law school’s history.

According to Search Committee members, 270 persons made application for the position. The committee personally interviewed some 25 applicants, then narrowed the field of candidates to five finalists, each of whom visited the university for two-three days to meet with students, alumni, university faculty and administration, and leaders in the legal profession and the community at large.

Once the exhausting process was complete, the waiting for Kellye and her fellow finalists began. The Dean Search Committee deliberated, then forwarded its recommendation to the president. It was on Friday, December 17, that Kellye learned from Provost Sue Secker that she was “clearly the right person for the job.”

“I recall being called over to Sue’s office,” said Kellye, “although I barely remember how I actually got there.

“‘I want to tell you now that President Sundborg has selected you as the new dean of the law school.’ Sue told me without preamble. ‘We didn’t want you to go on vacation without knowing, and we didn’t want to delay our announcement, risking speculation that we asked someone else first, then turned to you as our second choice. You are clearly—and without any doubt whatsoever—our first choice.’

“I was delighted,” added Kellye. “Relieved. Thrilled….I still am.”

Reflecting back on the long and grueling process that led to her selection, the former associate dean for administration is a bit contemplative:

“I can tell you this,” she insisted. “Being dean is lots easier than vying to be dean. It was a difficult and emotional time for me, largely because I knew that either I would be selected or I would have to leave the law school I adore.

“Once you put yourself forward, you must envision yourself as the dean. After that, it’s nearly impossible if you don’t get selected simply to return to the faculty and forget all about it.

“This was a tremendous fork in the road for me,” she continued. “There was a lot at stake.”

Happily—for Kellye, for the law school and the university, for the larger legal community—the risk was worth the effort. Although she’s been in office only three months, this new dean has for far longer reflected on the current state of the law school and on its future potential. She has a vision and she is eager to share it.

“In my view, this very good law school is poised to become a great law school,” Kellye claimed. “Building on our successful transition to Seattle under Jim Bond’s leadership, the law school has made recent advances in key areas under Rudy Hasl that an ‘inside dean’ is better situated to sustain and nurture without loss of momentum.

“Plus, I like to think I am a good ‘bridge’ between the old and the new, the past and the future. I did know us as the University of Puget Sound, but not long enough to feel especially connected to the institution. I felt—and feel—a connection to Tacoma, but not to UPS,” she explained.

Kellye Testy

“And, while it is entirely appropriate to honor our past, we need to be building foundations for the future of this wonderful law school. I relish the challenge.”

According to the new dean, those foundations for the future center on four key areas:

1. Solidifying and strengthening the student body.

Because prospective students choose law schools depending, in part, on “the stats” (LSAT and UGPA averages), Kellye is well aware of the importance of continuing to improve the admission profile of Seattle University’s law student body.

“I don’t for a minute want to suggest that ‘the numbers’ are the only elements of quality,” she said. “Still, what we have an opportunity to do here is to see those numbers go up without sacrificing any of our longstanding commitments to diversity—in terms of age, work experience, race, economic background, and other factors.

“Until I’m proven otherwise (and I don’t expect to be), I know we can do both things.”

2. Enhancing the intellectual climate of the law school.

This general arena, according to the dean, involves several initiatives. The first is an ongoing emphasis on the hiring of faculty who are superb scholars in their respective fields, and who also represent a diverse range of racial and socio-economic backgrounds, political persuasions, and educational interests.

“Many of our founding faculty members have or will have retired from teaching within the next few years,” said Kellye, “and I expect there will be other fluctuations among the professorial ranks. Who we hire in the next five to eight years will be enormously significant in terms of faculty quality for the foreseeable future.”

A second initiative involves faculty development and scholarship.

“This is something on which I especially want to focus,” the dean noted. “We were headed in the right direction at the time the law school was sold and, in fact, our law faculty twice had been listed among the nation’s top 50 in terms of scholarly productivity.

“Our transition to Seattle University necessarily diverted our attention away from research, writing, and publication and toward the myriad activities so essential to a strong and successful merger with our new parent university. That completed, we can now refocus our energies on faculty scholarship.”

In the dean’s mind, maintenance of a lively intellectual atmosphere also involves such things as bringing in visiting scholars from other law schools, scheduling sessions at which our own faculty present their original work to colleagues, and devoting decanal attention in co-equal fashion to the funding of faculty development opportunities and to faculty accountability for those investments.

3. Fortifying the relationship between the law school and the university, as well as the law school and the larger community.

“I want us to be viewed as such an essential part of the urban landscape—both on campus and beyond its borders—that you couldn’t possibly remove this law school without tearing at the roots of the university and the city,” said Kellye, whose plans in this arena include “expanding exponentially” the interdisciplinary programs in which the law school is engaged.

“We’re a small enough university that we can develop some really interesting interdisciplinary education that bureaucracy hinders at larger institutions,” she insisted.

Reaching out to the bench, the bar, and the greater community are tied intimately to the dean’s fourth major “foundations for the future” initiative; namely, a dean-directed, wide-ranging effort to increase interest in—and support for—the law school among its many off-campus constituencies.

4. Increasing external support.

“My main role as dean will be external,” Kellye told us without equivocation, “and it will begin with our own alumni. I want to involve our graduates in all aspects of the law school. They are an immense resource in a variety of ways. They can be mentors to our students. They can be advisers to our programs, both academic and co-curricular. They can be career counselors to—and employers of—our students and graduates.”

“Of course, they can offer their financial support, which will be quintessential to our advancement in the years ahead.

“I will carry my message to our 7,800 alumni from Washington State to Washington, D.C.,” she continued. “I will congratulate them on their professional accomplishments, remember and recognize the milestones in their personal lives. Most important, I will remind them that their law school diplomas represent a lifelong investment in the success of the Seattle University School of Law.”

As the dean sees it, each of these initiatives is an essential element in ongoing efforts to elevate the reputation of the School of Law. She insists that they must be achieved in the context of two overarching considerations.

“First, we must avoid falling into the trap of viewing academic excellence as somehow in tension with a justice-based mission or with our longstanding commitments to diversity. These core values are part and parcel of one another; we cannot achieve one without the others.

“Second,” she noted, “we must always put the needs of our students first. I don’t mean particular students or even a class of students. “I mean the students who are here, the students who have been here, the students who will be here in the future. It is their best interests that we always must serve.

“That is the touchstone, the benchmark, the litmus test. It is the standard on which, under my leadership, we will make decisions about the future of this law school.”

The new dean recognizes the Herculean level of her aspirations for that future. With a smile and a shrug, she dismisses the difficulties that surely lie ahead. With concern and candor and commitment to her new role as dean of the Seattle University School of Law, she invites all who care about the law school to invest their energy, their time, their treasure.

And their love. There’s that word again….

“When I delivered my dean candidate presentation at the law school, I talked about our school’s achievements, our opportunities, our challenges—and the talents I might bring to lead the law school in the years ahead,” Kellye said. “On conclusion of my speech, I told the capacity-crowd audience this:

“’The last thing I bring is love….I love this school, I love this community—its students, faculty, alumni, and administration.

“The dean who hired me once told me that I loved this law school too much for my own good. That’s a risk I’m still willing to take.’”

Kellye Testy