University of Iowa
Return to top

Iowa Law Welcomes Dean Washburn

Back in academia, Dean Washburn prepared to lead

Iowa Law “in a strong place”

By Lee Hermiston

University of Iowa College of Law Dean Kevin Washburn describes his legal career as one of “constant evolution.”

“I’ve worked in numerous jobs in federal public service and numerous law schools and I’ve been in a constant state of evolution,” says Washburn. “Some people stay in one place their whole lives and they succeed. Others need to keep getting new experiences to grow and I’m in the latter camp.”

He adds, “I’ve learned a lot in every different position I’ve been in and I can honestly say I’m continuing to learn now. It’s been humbling, but it has also really helped me develop as a person, as a manager and as a leader.”

That evolution and desire to continue to learn will be valuable as Washburn takes the reins as the 18th dean of the College of Law. Washburn says there are challenges ahead for Iowa Law, including navigating a new budget model while working to preserve the best interests of the college.

“Helping the College of Law be a force for good, both in the state and in the country, is our big-picture goal,” he says. “A lot of the more immediate goals are trying to figure out how to make that happen.”

Washburn, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Oklahoma and his Juris Doctor from the Yale Law School. Following law school, he clerked for Judge William C. Canby Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He then joined the Honors Program at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

Before his academic career, Washburn served as a federal prosecutor in New Mexico in the Violent Crimes Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He was later a trial attorney with the U.S. Justice Department and later served as general counsel of the National Indian Gaming Commission. He has judicial experience from his service as Chief Judge for the Court of Appeals of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Indians in Michigan and as a Justice of the Appellate Court for the Meskwaki Tribe in Iowa.

Washburn entered academia at the University of Minnesota in 2002. He spent the academic year of 2007 to 2008 as the Oneida Nation Distinguished Visiting Professor of Indian Law at the Harvard Law School. From 2008 to 2009, he was the Rosenstiel Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law.

From July 2009 to October 2012, Washburn served as dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law before being nominated in August 2012 by President Barack Obama to serve as the Assistant Secretary to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There, he was principal advisor to the Secretary of the Interior and President Obama on matters involving tribal nations. He also served as the principal link between the federal government and the country’s 567 tribal nations.

Washburn says his career in government was a valuable experience.

“Most academics are trying to change the world, make it better,” he says. “Sometimes, you can have a more direct effect if you are actually pulling the levers of power rather than critiquing them or commenting about them. It was fun to do that.”

“But, I’m an academic at heart and I enjoy students and I enjoy research and writing and I enjoy my intellectual freedom. So, working in government was a nice way to implement some of my ideas, but I wasn’t going to abandon the academy by any means.”

Washburn’s connection to Iowa Law actually began early on in his academic career, he says. While at the University of Minnesota, Washburn’s neighbors were Tom and Liz Boyd, College of Law alumni and son and daughter-in-law of former University of Iowa President and College of Law Dean Sandy Boyd. The families grew close, Washburn says.

“I got to know the Boyds very well,” he says. “I met Sandy several times when he came to visit. I like to joke that I’m the Boyd family photographer. If there was a big family reunion up at Tom and Liz’s house, I’d be up on the ladder trying to take a picture of the whole group.”

While the Boyds didn’t recruit Washburn to apply to be the next Iowa Law dean, Washburn says his relationship with the Boyd family gave him a better sense of the history of Iowa Law and helped him develop an affinity for the college.

Washburn says that Iowa Law is in “a very good place” and praises the faculty, staff and students. One of his goals is to maintain the culture that makes Iowa Law a special place to teach, learn and work.

“It’s in a strong place,” he says. “We do have challenges. One of them is how we finance this moving forward. We’re really having to move very cautiously forward due to fiscal challenges, but it remains an extremely strong law school. And the challenge is keeping it that way with a much smaller budget footprint.”

Washburn says another challenge is ensuring that the College of Law recruits a diverse faculty and student body in order to better prepare students for life after graduation.

“We intend to produce leaders here,” he says. “If we really want to solve the problems of the world, we need to make sure we’re providing an environment that reflects that diversity.”

Washburn notes that applications have been up for two years in a row, which he views as a sign that Iowa Law’s reputation remains high.

Much of Washburn’s first few months at Iowa Law have been spent on the road, visiting alumni in places such as Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Alumni remain proud of the institution, he says.

“There’s a lot of love, a lot of goodwill attached to this College of Law among its former students,” he says. “They have some concerns about COL's future, but these come from a place of caring and loyalty. They all feel tremendous gratitude for the education they received here.”

Washburn will have his hands full with duties outside of the Boyd Law Building. He is the incoming chair of the Law School Admission Council, a responsibility that will require a lot of national travel. He says he intends to use that travel to further engage with alumni around the country.

Travel won’t always be for work, however. Washburn says he and his family – he’s married with three sons – love to travel. On the weekends, the family intends to explore their new home.

“This state has a lot to offer, from the Bridges of Madison County to the bluffs of the Mississippi River,” he says. “We look forward to seeing it all.”

Avid skiers, Washburn says he and his family also enjoy visiting the Southwest and the Rocky Mountains.

At home, Washburn enjoys reading, particularly works on the Civil War and Native Americans. He also enjoys running and college football.

“I will always be a Sooner, so I will always root for them,” he says. “The Hawkeyes have a tradition similar to the Sooners and I am really looking forward to football season. Go Hawks!”

Along with his other commitments, Washburn says he hopes to keep up with his scholarly pursuits.

“Being part of an intellectual community and being a good colleague means not just reading my own work and the work of my colleagues on the faculty, but producing some myself,” he says.