Features, Off-Campus Profiles, Profiles, 2024 Celebrating Black Voices

Former BC Law Dean Rougeau Serves as First Black President of Holy Cross

The year 2020 is etched into the collective memory of people across the United States. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and moments of racial reckoning across America, 2020 marked the beginning of a major cultural shift in the United States.

During this time, Vincent Rougeau, current president of College of the Holy Cross, was serving as the dean of the Boston College Law School. In response to the events of 2020, he helped create and served as the inaugural director of BC’s Forum on Racial Justice in America, which provides space to discuss issues of race and racism. 

“We felt that it would be important for Boston College to have a forum where we would think deeply about these issues as they relate not only to the campus and to life at BC, but also to the broader community,” Rougeau said. 

The Forum on Racial Justice in America hosts guest speakers, panels, and seminars exploring race-related issues. As the inaugural director of the Forum, Rougeau said he initiated these projects to create a more just and inclusive BC community.

“What I did as director … was bring together people from across the BC community to think deeply about how BC as a University could contribute in a positive way to moving the nation forward around issues of race and racial justice,” Rougeau said. 

These efforts were a direct response to the increase in conversations about race that began in 2020, Rougeau said. He said it served as an outlet for the BC community to address these national issues.

Rougeau was exceptional at leading the law school through these nationwide reckonings, BC Law Professor Kent Greenfield said.

“Toward the end of his tenure, we had some really difficult times,” Greenfield said. “We had moments of real racial reckoning in America, and, as a Black man, a Black leader, a Black law professor, a Black scholar … I think people were really attentive to his views.”

Rougeau was the dean of BC Law from 2011 to 2021. During his 10-year tenure, much of his effort was focused on diversifying the law school, he said. 

“We did want to diversify the student body, and we worked hard and did that,” Rougeau said. “It wasn’t a straight line. It took efforts that went up and down in the early time, but I think over time, we were really more consistently successful.”

According to Rougeau, these efforts to diversify BC Law went hand in hand with improving the school’s prestige.

“We worked really hard to position BC Law School as, you know, a top national law school,” Rougeau said. “Part of that work involved broadening the applicant pool and really making sure that we were a school that students of all kinds of backgrounds would look to as a place where they’d like to get their legal education.” 

At the beginning of his time at BC Law, one of the biggest challenges Rougeau faced was evaluating the strength of the existing legal curriculum and assessing how it could be adjusted to better suit the needs of the workforce.

“There’s a tension between getting the kind of intellectual and academic training that you need to be a great lawyer, and also preparing you [with] foundational skills that get you up and running when you leave law school and start working,” Rougeau said.

To address this issue, Rougeau said he guided the school to focus on promoting more opportunities for clinical education, skills training, and off-campus internships.

“We were able to think in new ways about the curriculum and making it relevant for today but still ensuring that it was academically rigorous,” Rougeau said.

In 2021, Rougeau departed BC Law to become the first Black president of Holy Cross. The Jesuit values that Holy Cross shares with BC made the two positions similar, he said.

“It’s incredibly important that they’re both Jesuit institutions,” Rougeau said. “They’re both rooted in what I believe is a very special and transformative mission. And I think it matters for how we teach, how we learn, how we develop our students, and how we live in community with each other.” 

Just as he did at BC, Rougeau plans to expand diversity at Holy Cross, he said.

“We’re working really hard to bring Holy Cross to communities where maybe it is not as well-known so that we get applications from students from different parts of the country, different racial and ethnic groups,” Rougeau said.

At Jesuit institutions like Holy Cross, prioritizing diversity reflects the values of the Catholic faith, according to Rougeau. 

“We believe it’s very important to have a diverse campus community, not just for diversity in and of itself, but just because it is a representation of our mission … the Catholic church is a diverse community,” Rougeau said.

Rougeau also said he has a unique position as the first Black president of Holy Cross. 

“Being the first Black president offers me a certain platform on those issues that I try to use,” Rougeau said. 

In recognition of his service to BC, Rougeau was presented the St. Thomas More Award by the BC Law Alumni Association in May of 2023. 

The award is given to a legal professional who preserves BC’s mission and embodies the ideals of St. Thomas More, according to Rougeau.

“That means you can’t always do whatever you want to win—you have to recognize that we, as lawyers, are carrying a responsibility for making sure that the system always functions in a way that tries to push towards justice and fairness,” Rougeau said. 

According to BC Law Professor Mary Sarah Bilder, Rougeau’s empathy, fairness, and keen sense of ethics are what make him stand out.

“He’s just an incredibly compassionate person who has a real moral center and yet understands the complexities of the real world,” Bilder said. 

Though Rougeau has taken on a variety of powerful roles, Bilder said he remains authentic and compassionate. 

“Nothing about the positions he’s held has ever changed who he is,” Bilder said. 

Greenfield also said Rougeau is known for his compassion, and that his ability to connect with others gave BC Law a renewed sense of community.

“I became more dedicated to the institution during his tenure, rather than using the institution for my own purposes—furthering my own work and my own research and my own goals,” Greenfield said. “He helped the institution become a place that was worthy of my dedication.” 

For Rougeau, this heightened sense of community was the highlight of his tenure. 

“I am very, very proud to have had 10 years of leading it, and I feel still very attached to the people there,” Rougeau said. “[I’m] very proud of the students, alumni, faculty, and staff who work there because I think it is just a really extraordinary place.”

February 19, 2024