When Marcilynn Burke, a law professor who also served at the Department of the Interior under President Obama, gave the 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture at Lewis and Clark Law School last January, she didn’t begin by warming up the audience with a humorous anecdote. Instead, she walked from behind the lectern and began to sing. After finishing two verses of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” it’s a good bet she had the audience in her pocket.
Burke, the new dean of the University of Oregon School of Law, went on to give a talk that wove together issues over public lands ownership, excerpts from King’s speeches, the protests at Standing Rock and the reasons why those charged in the 2015 occupation of the Malheur Refuge Headquarters were acquitted of the government’s charges against them. Burke cautioned her audience to avoid “snobbish exclusivity” and strive to find common ground with individuals who hold differing views, even if challenging.
“What are (you) committed to, as lawyers-to-be?” she asked her audience.
Burke’s January talk showcased the creativity, idealism and real-world experience she has honed in her 22-year legal career. Today, the new dean and Dave Frohnmayer Chair in Leadership and Law is excited about using her skills and leadership to strengthen areas Oregon Law is known for and to explore innovative ways the school can move forward.
“With a new dean there’s always excitement and hope, and talking with members of the faculty and staff gives me energy as well,” Burke says. “I’m excited to be the first black female dean of the law school and having the opportunity to help make a great school even better.”
Burke graduated from Yale Law School in 1995. She was an editor for both the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism and the Yale Journal of International Law. After clerking for a federal judge and working in private practice, she joined the faculty of the University of Houston Law Center in 2002, teaching courses in property law, environmental land use, and natural resources.
She served as a co-director of the Environment, Energy & Natural Resources Center at UH and was lead faculty editor for the Environment and Energy Law and Policy Journal. She received tenure in 2011 and was named associate dean in 2015.
Leonard Baynes, dean of the University of Houston Law Center, said Burke has been “a terrific administrator, worked to treat faculty members equitably and has been a strong voice for faculty support. She will be sorely missed, but Oregon is very lucky to be getting a leader with Marcilynn’s vision, commitment and values.”
In 2009, Burke took a leave from the law center to work as deputy director for programs and policy for the federal Bureau of Land Management. She was named acting assistant secretary for land and mineral management in 2011.
While working at the Interior Department, Burke says she realized the importance of teamwork and that the desired results were only possible when stakeholders with very different views kept on talking.
“There were a number of things that I didn’t anticipate that made it a wonderful experience,” she says, “but one of them was recognizing that I could not succeed in my mission, and the Department of the Interior cannot succeed in its mission, without working with partners or the stakeholders, whether it was state government, tribal government, different public interest groups or corporations — we all have to work together in order to accomplish our goals.”
Some of the ideas Burke is considering for the law school include expanded collaborations with the Robert D. Clark Honors College and other professional schools at the UO. She would like to explore joint degree opportunities, online options and new possibilities for the school’s Portland program.
In a statement announcing her appointment, Scott Coltrane, UO provost and senior vice president, said of Burke, “Her experience and legal expertise are a tremendous complement to the excellent work of our faculty. As our top candidate, I believe Burke will have an instant rapport with her colleagues that will inspire even greater achievements in environmental and natural resources law, dispute resolution and other areas of emphasis across the school.”
Once settled, Burke will likely have little spare time outside of academics and administrating, but one thing she’d like to do is find a gospel choir to sing with. There, too, she is willing to be flexible.
“I’ve always sung in a church choir or a community choir. I’m an alto, but I can sing both tenor and soprano. I’m what is known as a utility player.”
—By Alice Tallmadge, with contributions by Sharleen Nelson for Oregon Quarterly