June 9, 2020
Dear Oregon Law Community,
I have struggled to put into words my thoughts and feelings as I sort through layers of identity, role, and impact. I am keenly aware of how important words are at this pivotal moment in time and how those words will be judged against both history and the future. I have enormous ambition for words. I want them to acknowledge authentically and sincerely our truth and give voice to the marginalized and silenced.
At the same time, I know that many are tired of just hearing words. We want our words to inspire action and progress, and we want our words to convey commitment to and solidarity with the movement demanding change. I have been searching for words that will compel us to move toward equity, justice, peace, and healing.
We are seeing centuries of systemic racial inequality and brutality coming to a head (again) as the global community protests the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Our Black community faces continued oppression, incarceration, discrimination, and death and is desperate to be heard, understood, seen, and valued. I feel sad, angry, hopeful, and overwhelmed in this moment, and I imagine that many of you do as well. I worry about my brother. I worry about myself. I am exhausted.
Moreover, all of this unrest is occurring as a pandemic has claimed more than 110,000 lives in our country, disproportionately impacting Black people, Indigenous people, other people of color, immigrants, and the incarcerated. An economic recession is threatening organizations and businesses, as well as the communities they support. Over 40 million Americans are unemployed, and many more are grappling with how to care for sick family members, raise children without school or childcare, and other challenges that are new or exacerbated by the pandemic.
Though we have been consumed by the health crisis, we no longer can avert our eyes from these murders—and the long history of them—which are too often committed in the name of law and order. The perversion of this ideal—law and order—strikes me at the core as a Black female dean of a law school. And thus, I have struggled personally and professionally to come to terms with the conditions that we should not and must not continue to place on the backburner of our otherwise crowded and worthy agendas.
"My fervent plea is that with respect to the state of racism, we no longer settle into acceptance. We must speak out against injustice in places in which it may be uncomfortable and in places in which it may be most impactful."
As we continue to mourn, we also must turn to how we can change the country’s systemic discrimination and unjust racial inequities. We are uniquely positioned with the power, skills, knowledge, and resources to shape and bend the arc towards justice. Our core purpose is to prepare leaders to resolve conflicts, develop solutions, and advance justice in society.
Our graduates reform and administer the criminal justice system; they run for public office and govern our cities, states, and nation; and they advocate for social justice, environmental justice, and other foundations of our way of life and being. They lead law firms, legal departments, businesses, non-profit organizations, and more. Essentially, we prepare people to catalyze change and to bring leadership to challenges and opportunities, which is needed now more than ever. And, yet, our efforts have been insufficient.
Even as I wrestle this dis-ease that has led to a gnawing pain in my gut and an almost paralysis of mind and body, I keep asking myself these and other questions. What more can we do to stop seeing people shot, tasered, asphyxiated, brutalized, and murdered? What more can we do to stop adding names to the list? What more can we do to create the kind of just, multiracial, multicultural, pluralistic democratic society that we all deserve?
We will realize this vision of society by educating and empowering ourselves and the next generation of leaders to listen, question, re-imagine, re-invent, and dismantle that which robs us of our liberties and inalienable rights. We also must extend our efforts to those outside of our institution to listen, learn, and, ultimately, reshape policies, practices, and perspectives. We need new voices. We need new energy.
As a first step, I will challenge our existing structures to generate ideas that we can implement in the short- and long-term to catalyze positive change and advance the cause of justice. Those include the leadership of the law school, our faculty committees, student organizations, and alumni. I know that many of you have your own ideas about how we could be doing more, and I welcome that sometimes very difficult dialogue to move us towards the place we should be. It will not be easy and some of these ideas will take time. Nonetheless, I am sure that you feel a sense of urgency, and I do not want us to let this moment pass without capitalizing upon it.
“Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.” - Thurgood Marshall
I generally am a “glass half-full” person, and thus I am hopeful that we will find a way to heal and realize our highest ideals. I have spoken in several contexts recently about how we are moving through the well-known stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. That movement is not linear, however, with us bouncing back and forth through the stages. My fervent plea is that with respect to the state of racism, we no longer settle into acceptance. We must speak out against injustice in places in which it may be uncomfortable and in places in which it may be most impactful. As Justice Thurgood Marshall once said, “Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”
As we accept the challenge to “Drive Change,” I also ask that we take care of ourselves and each other. Many members of our community are currently and naturally experiencing heightened levels of stress and anxiety. If you need help, please contact me or Dean Jennifer Espinola directly, or take advantage of our university’s other resources. Students may contact the University of Oregon Counseling Center. Faculty and staff may access employee wellness resources.
In my commencement remarks, I paraphrased Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said that the ultimate measure of an individual is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy. I am confident that we are ready to stand up during these times and to meet the challenges and opportunities before us. We can and must drive the change that amplifies and exemplifies our commitment to and love of justice.
The recent social media campaign, #BlackoutTuesday, brought to mind a line from Victor Hugo. “Whatever causes night in our souls may leaves stars.” When I first heard the line, I thought it referred to darkness in our souls causing “scars.” While both are inescapably true, today I am searching for stars among the darkness. Let us be those stars together.
All my best,
Marcilynn A. Burke
Dean and Dave Frohnmayer Chair in Leadership and Law
University of Oregon School of Law
We strive to do better as a law school and want to hear from you. We encourage you to leave a comment on this form. Responses will be shared at later time and will be a part of future community discussions.
Marcilynn A. Burke
Dave Frohnmayer Chair in Leadership and Law
A version of this message was sent to current faculty, staff, and students on June 5, 2020.
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