Jump to Content
Apply Today


Faculty and Staff

Michelle McKinley

Oregon Law Associate Professor Michelle McKinley teaches Law, Culture & Society, Immigration Law, Public International Law, and Refugee & Asylum Law. Professor McKinley attended Harvard Law School, where she was executive editor of the Harvard Human Rights Journal and graduated cum laude in 1995. Professor McKinley also holds a master's degree in social anthropology from Oxford University. Michelle McKinley Associate Professor Michelle McKinley

Earlier this year, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) awarded Professor McKinley a fellowship for July 2012-May 2013. The prestigious, and competitive, ACLS Fellowship is awarded to researchers in all disciplines of humanities and related social sciences.

McKinley’s list of honors and awards while at Oregon Law also includes an Oregon Humanities Center Research Fellowship, a Wayne Morse Residential Fellowship, two awards from the American Philosophical Society, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Newberry Library Fellowship and the 2011 Surrency Prize.

Below is a Q&A with Professor McKinley on aspects of her professional and personal lives.

Q: What inspired you to become a legal educator?

A: My own teachers in law school. I still remember taking Jurisprudence with Roberto Unger – and that was when I was a law student 20 years ago! My best teachers seemed to have resolved individually that no paradigm should be left unquestioned, and better, un-shifted. That's a very empowering pedagogical legacy to any educator.

Q: If you did not work as a legal educator, what other profession would you choose?

A: I would do something creative, like furniture painting, something that I could see the end product of, that goes into circulation and gives someone else joy. I look at neat and cool things people make with their hands and envy the capacity to do work that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. So much of our work as academics doesn't have an end product, there's always something we could have researched more deeply, a point we realize later that is important, side tracks of inquiries we took that didn't get us anywhere…

If I were 25 years younger, I would take off for New York City or Paris and make jewelry and sell the pieces at itinerant art fairs in the city parks.

Or I would run the best little restaurant in Barcelona or Seville. I just read an inspiring story in the New York Times about a 31-year-old American woman who opened up a taco cart/food wagon in Paris, "le camion qui fume" and I think that's great. Maybe when I retire…

Q: What do you enjoy most about teaching law?

A: I've had some great “a-ha” moments over the course of seven years. The best moments come after students graduate or finish a class, and email me or call me years later and say, “Professor McKinley, I remember when…” or, “I won this case and wanted to share this victory with you.”

Those calls and emails are priceless and make all the difference. I'm no Kingsfield. No one comes in with a brain full of mush. I look beyond where students are as they are learning doctrine and policy and see them as future colleagues in the fields in which I see them developing an interest. The classroom is better and livelier because of the student's insights.

Q: What is your personal mission statement in the classroom?

A: A lot depends on what I am teaching. I must get five phone calls a week from people with uncertain immigration status, who are desperate about their future and present capacity to remain in the United States. These can be single moms with U.S. citizen children who need housing assistance and can't run the risk of getting detected because they fear for their children. The calls also come from mothers looking for their sons in a border town detention facility. These are heartbreaking calls to take, because, as I tell students, being an immigration lawyer is a lot like being an oncologist. By the time people come for your services, it's too late. We have no legal tools to fix their situation. So, I'm extremely demanding in an Immigration Law classroom. Everyone there is expected to be a professional, expected to be ethical and respectful because soon they will be getting those calls. I view the classroom as helping them to roll their sleeves up and get ready to work.

I also teach International Law, and this is a class where I like to displace expectations. Today's students live in a vastly different America than that of even just a few decades ago. I didn't do well as a law student with professors who tried to create a learning atmosphere that was antagonistic or competitive. I doubt that many students thrive on or learn well in those kinds of environments.

Q: What do you enjoy most about living in Eugene?

A: I love to eat and I love to cook. I'm a locavore. And I'm a terrible wine snob. These factors combined make Eugene a fabulous place for foodies and oenophiles.

Q: What are some of your personal hobbies/interests outside of work?

A: Silversmithing. I like to do crosswords. I like playing weird card games with my kids. I like going to different cities with my kids too. They are almost old enough to be over carsickness and trip boredom (are we there yet?), and are becoming very interesting travel companions.

Q: The most memorable place you have visited is…

A: Because I am a legal history nerd of the baroque period: Lima's Museum of the Inquisition. For an architectural delight, the Escorial in Madrid. Cool architecture: the Metropolitan Cathedral of Liverpool. I love Anthropology museums and the most memorable ones are in Vancouver, Amsterdam, Oxford, Mexico City, and London.

My best meal was my 40th birthday buffet at the Costa Verde in Lima. Best nachos: Jalisco’s–a gas station eatery in Lawrence, Kansas. Best dining experience: a medieval castle all to myself in Ciudad Rodrigo, Spain, on the border with Portugal — transcendental olives. Best berries: those orange raspberries at the Eugene Saturday Market in July – fantabulous.

Q: Who most influenced your life or is someone you most look up to?

A: So those are two very different questions. There are scholars who I look up to. Natalie Zemon Davis for instance, who is in her mid 80s, but still producing rock-your-socks scholarship as a cultural historian. But for influence, I'd say my dad, who many at Oregon Law have met here in Eugene. I also admire my kids very much. They live with me and still turn out okay: empathetic, cosmopolitan, resilient, and funny. Can't top that.

View more Faculty Profiles


Oregon Law » Faculty & Staff » Our Faculty » Michelle McKinley