Women’s History Month Series: Norma B. Leftwich

Issue Date: 
March 26, 2007

Pitt alumna is the first woman in the 140-year history of Howard University to serve as HU’s top legal officer

As a Pitt undergraduate, Norma B. Leftwich (CAS ’69) never imagined that she would become, in 1995, the first woman in the 140-year history of Howard University to serve as general counsel—the top legal officer—of that venerable Washington, D.C., institution.

“I think that my coming to Howard University actually happened by chance, but after being here I feel drawn to a university setting,” says Leftwich. “Howard is the flagship HBCU [Historically Black College and University] in the nation. Its history and its mission are embedded in this country. It’s been such an important place for many, many generations of African Americans. And, it has been important globally as well. Howard is a very international university.”

Internationalism figured into Leftwich’s decision to attend Pitt.

Born and raised in the Bronx in New York City, Leftwich first dreamed of working for the United Nations. As a high school student, she took courses in Mandarin Chinese at Columbia University. One of the reasons Leftwich enrolled at Pitt was that it offered courses in Mandarin, a rare thing for a U.S. university to do at that time. Fascinated by languages, Leftwich majored in French here, also taking courses in Mandarin and German. In addition, she earned a minor in political science.

“I received a solid education at Pitt,” Leftwich declares. “That has served me very well as a foundation for my career and for many years later, when I attended Georgetown University Law Center.”

Leftwich says Pitt also gave her the gift of lifelong friends, many of whom she met through the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, which she pledged here.

One of her favorite Pitt memories is of the view of campus (“among the most beautiful in the country,” Leftwich says) from her room on the 16th floor of the Tower C residence hall. She also fondly remembers Lantern Night, a rite-of-passage ceremony for Pitt freshman women that extended the 10 p.m. curfew for female freshmen by a couple of hours. (Male freshmen did not have a curfew in those days. By the time Leftwich graduated, Pitt had abolished curfews for female as well as male students.)

After graduating from Pitt, Leftwich set out on a career path that did not draw on her earlier intense study of foreign languages. She worked as a personnel interviewer at a bank, then taught in a program that helped adult students earn their G.E.D.s and prepare for careers in banking. Eventually, Leftwich found herself in the field of work that she would pursue for nearly 20 years: developing initiatives to provide opportunities for small-business proprietors and business owners from underrepresented populations.

In the late 1970s, Leftwich worked with the Office of Minority Business Enterprise in Washington, D.C., where she helped to manage a $58 million program to develop businesses owned by Blacks and members of other underrepresented groups. Subsequently, as special assistant to the director of the Interagency Council for Minority Business Enterprise in the U.S. Department of Commerce, Leftwich developed innovative strategies to increase opportunities for minority-owned businesses seeking to contract with federal agencies.

Leftwich later directed the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization in the U.S. Department of Defense. There, she was primarily responsible for setting “goals and policies that would assist small, women-owned, and minority-owned firms in getting their fair chance to compete for defense contract dollars,” she says. Leftwich also oversaw more than 750 employees nationwide, managed approximately $50 billion in procurement dollars, and served as a consultant to the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition.

At age 40, Leftwich felt ready for a career change. She enrolled at the Georgetown University Law Center, earning her J.D. in 1992. Completing that degree fulfilled a family dream, Leftwich points out: Her father, Leon Bogues, a New York State senator, had dreamed of earning a J.D., but circumstances had ruled that out.

“I went to law school to fulfill a family pledge,” Leftwich says. “My father had very much wanted to go to law school. He actually had started but wasn’t able to finish because of his family responsibilities.”

Leon Bogues died in 1985 at age 58 during his second term in the New York State Senate. “When I graduated from Georgetown, I made sure to include my maiden name on the diploma to honor my dad,” Leftwich says. “That was very important to me. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to be the family’s first lawyer.”

Another of Leftwich’s proudest professional achievements was her appointment to the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics, on which she served from 1989 to 1998. In this volunteer position, Leftwich helped to oversee the electoral process in the nation’s capital.

Throughout her career, Leftwich has been honored with a number of awards, including the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, the NAACP Roy Wilkins Meritorious Service Award, and the Pioneers of the Profession—Association of Minority In-House Counsel.

On a personal level, Leftwich is proud to have raised—together with her husband, Willie, a retired attorney who now is a full-time potter—a Pitt graduate: Their son, Curtis Leftwich, earned his B.A. in economics here in 2002.

As general counsel of Howard University, Leftwich manages the legal affairs of the university as well as its subsidiaries, including Howard University Hospital, the WHUR 96.3 FM radio station, and the public television station WHUT-TV. She oversees issues related to employment law, torts, contracts, estates, real property, federal procurements and grants, student and faculty issues, intellectual property, compliance investigations, health law, and corporate governance and litigation.

Leftwich provides counsel to Howard’s president and its board of trustees. She serves as the university’s chief compliance officer with overall responsibility for Code of Conduct compliance by university officials and board members. In addition, Leftwich manages nine attorneys, four paralegals, and 10 administrative clerical personnel.All in a day’s work.

“We [in the general counsel’s office] are also advisers to Howard University Hospital, its doctors, and university scientists doing research. The office covers a variety of legal issues, and that’s what makes it so exciting,” Leftwich says. “You never see the same thing day after day.”

Nor do Leftwich’s colleagues at Howard often see such a multifaceted administrator.

“Norma Leftwich is a consummate professional. It has been a delight to work with her over the years,” says Franklin Chambers, Howard’s vice provost for student affairs. “She has always been a student advocate, and her advice is invaluable. We look to her for guidance in a myriad of situations, and not all of them are related to legal advice.”

(Willona Sloan is a writer/editor in Howard University’s Office of University Communications.)