Associate Dean for International and Comparative Law Programs
Bessie Dutton Murray Professor
Director of the UI Center for Human Rights & France Summer Abroad Program
Joined Iowa Law: 1987
Hometown: I was born in Oceanside, California at Camp Pendleton Marine Base, but I grew up in Orange, New Jersey.
BA, Princeton University
MA, University of California at Los Angeles
JD, Stanford Law School
Courses: Critical Race Theory, Law in the Muslim World, Human Rights, and Sex Discrimination Law
What did you do before joining Iowa Law?
Prior to joining the College of Law faculty in 1987, I spent five years in practice in New York City with Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle; and with Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky & Lieberman, specializing in international law issues regarding Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. I also served as a representative to the United Nations for the National Conference of Black Lawyers.
What does your work as Dean of International and Comparative Law entail? In that role I have oversight for everything we do relating to study abroad programs, international students, admission, placement, and foreign travel. I’m also the director for the UI Center for Human Rights — which is a university-wide center operated out of the law school — and I direct the France Study Abroad Program, which operates 5 weeks a year in Paris and Arcachon.
What does your scholarship entail? I have done over 130 publications, focusing on international and domestic human rights with an emphasis on race and gender, as well as a focus on the Muslim world.
How did you decide to join the legal profession? I decided to be a lawyer when I was in high school, which was in 1974. At that time, you had the Civil Rights Movement, plus anti-war efforts, women’s rights movements, environmental rights movements, etcetera. I come from family, on my mother’s side, who were community activists and educators in the Bronx, New York. I also enjoyed current events and public speaking, and all of that added up to lawyer.
What do you enjoy most about working in a higher education/law school setting? I love the ability to reach out and inspire young people, the next generation or two behind me, to get them excited and directed in different areas of law. The areas that I specialize in can be very depressing, and my generation of boomers is either already in retirement or heading toward retirement and many of us are burned out. So it’s very fulfilling for me to be able to know that I am having a direct impact on those who will come after my generation in trying to make the United States and the rest of the world a place where justice might prevail.
What makes you passionate about your work? In addition to having the ability to impact students, I feel the things I’m doing are impacting the cause of justice and human rights in the U.S. and abroad and those have remained important to me my entire life. I also am passionate because I realize I have had opportunities that many people in my position would not have had. There is no other country in the world where someone with my background as a minority group female would be able to become what I have become — a tenured full professor, an administrative associate dean — it just isn’t possible. I feel I should use the opportunities I have been given and the global privilege I enjoy as a result of all of those positions to keep trying to make a difference for as long as I am able. Eventually, I will leave comfortably knowing that there will be my own family and former students behind me who will keep pushing in these areas.
Take us through your most memorable day at the university. I think the most wonderful day of many wonderful days was the day that my portrait was unveiled at the law school. You can have one after 25 years, and the dean held a ceremony. There were 100 or more people that came for this event, including members of my family from back east. People showed up, including former students whom I had no idea were going to attend So that would be the most memorable day in my career.
Iowa Law appears to be the only law school in the US that has this custom when someone reaches 25 years, so it’s quite unique. I’m the first black tenure track faculty member to have a portrait and it was done by my partner, who is an artist. To have him execute that portrait has particular meaning to me as well and it is a very different portrait from any of the others in that all of them tend to be in a law building or within a law background whereas mine has a background of the pyramids, which represents the intersection of my regional interests of Africa and the Middle East. There’s nothing else like that on the walls.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken—and did it pay off? I followed a husband to a war zone in Lebanon in 1982. My life was directly on the line every day for a month and the fact that we survived that experience when many people we knew and worked with were killed changed the rest of my life and gave me a specialty in the Middle East that I had not had before. So that’s a whole different level — going to war zones, seeing people die and how that smells.It affects how I look at everything now. Most people who are exposed to that are soldiers, not civilians, so it was beyond a risk, definitely a crazy dangerous thing that we did. But I wouldn’t have had that specialty or focused on the region at all had I not done that in 1982.
If you could spend a day with anyone, from any era, who would it be and why? Nelson Mandela, because in my career I specialized in South Africa and I was involved with the writing of the South African constitution, and yet I did not get to ever meet Nelson Mandela personally. I’ve read his autobiography; I’ve been to South Africa more than 10 times. I’ve specialized in that region for over 40 years, so he would be the person.
What’s your favorite book, or what are you reading right now & why do you enjoy it? My favorite book that I’ve read recently is “Just Mercy” by my friend of 30 years, New York University Law Professor Bryan Stephenson. The UICHR brought him to Iowa to speak to 1,100 people in the main lounge last fall.
Name five of your favorite things.
- International travel – I’ve been to over 100 countries.
- Spending time with my extended family
- Reading biographies
- Exercise such as swimming, walking and Pilates
- Eating spicy food
Anything else we should know?
This fall I started my 30th year at the law school. It’s shocking how quickly time has passed, and, for some families, I’ve had two generations of students.