Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2022 year in review.
The search for the next dean of Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law was extensive. It started more than a year ago and took search committee members all around the country.
In the end, the candidate they chose was already part of ASU’s academic community — Stacy Leeds. The experienced leader and renowned legal scholar joined ASU in 2021, as Foundation Professor of Law and Leadership at ASU, where she teaches in the Indian Legal Program. Her new post starts Feb. 1, 2023.
“The advisory committee conducted a national search and considered multiple applications from impressive, well-qualified candidates,” said Ruth McGregor, retired chief justice for the Arizona Supreme Court and an ASU Law graduate, who chaired the committee.
“Professor Leeds stood out for the combination of skills, vision and experience she brings, and for her excitement about meeting the challenges faced by and the opportunities available to the dean of ASU’s law school,” McGregor said.
The Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law is one of the nation’s preeminent law schools, focused on offering students a personalized legal education. It is ranked No. 1 in Arizona since 2010 and No. 30 nationally by U.S. News & World Report.
Nancy Gonzales, executive vice president and university provost at ASU, said that Leeds had an illustrious career and very unique experience.
“Her depth of experience in corporate engagement and public service to the nation, tribal nations and communities, as well as higher education leadership, is uncommon,” Gonzales said. “And this will be her second law school deanship — a rare accomplishment.”
Leeds and leadership
Prior to coming to ASU, Leeds was the first Indigenous woman in the U.S. to become a law school dean. She led the University of Arkansas School of Law serving as dean and vice chancellor for economic development. She holds law degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the University of Tulsa, a business degree from the University of Tennessee and an undergraduate degree in history from Washington University in St. Louis.
Leeds is an elected member of the American Law Institute and recipient of the American Bar Association's Spirit of Excellence Award.
She replaces Dean Douglas Sylvester, who transformed ASU Law and brought its rankings to historic heights.
Wellness plans for today and beyond
Leeds hopes to build on the successful work of her predecessors.
“My vision is to amplify our current strengths of excellence, access and innovation,” said Leeds, “but also prioritize wellness in all respects.”
“This necessarily means creating an environment where all voices are heard and each law student is supported in their needs as a whole person,” she said.
Leeds understands the high stress levels often associated with the law school experience and the legal profession as a whole.
“Focusing on the whole person means making sure students have access to all the tools they need to succeed in life. This means a commitment not just to excellence in legal education, but also fostering paths to financial, physical, mental and spiritual wellness,” Leeds said.
Accessible legal education
Leeds also wants to make ASU Law accessible and more flexible for students. Law schools have maintained a traditional method of classroom teaching, but the American Bar Association has recently amended accreditation standards to law schools to deliver one-third of their degrees online.
“Online platforms are still a relatively new phenomenon in the J.D. curriculum at law schools nationally,” Leeds said. “In order to offer students’ maximum flexibility to tailor their law school experience to their needs, online opportunities must rapidly evolve. As we continue to innovate, we’ll pledge to maintain the level of excellence everyone has come to expect from ASU.”
Leeds is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and has lived much of her life within the Muscogee (Creek) and Cherokee reservations in Oklahoma, where she served as a Cherokee Nation Supreme Court justice.
One of the draws to ASU was the university’s widespread commitment to inclusive excellence.
“ASU has long embraced meaningful access to education as a threshold to individual and community empowerment.” Leeds said. “It goes beyond an expectation that students from all backgrounds and life experiences should have a sense of belonging here. Imagine an institution that takes primary responsibility for student growth and success – that’s ASU.”
Leeds attributes her success to the impact of several mentors as she began her own path in the legal profession and takes seriously her responsibility to open doors for all law students, regardless of their background or dreams for their future.
She sees her role in expanding those educational opportunities as paramount to continuing to honor the legacy of the college’s namesake, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the groundbreaking jurist who dedicated her life to public service and the rule of law.
Leeds will carry this spirit of justice and inclusiveness to her new role, where she will have the honor of serving as the first Willard H. Pedrick Dean’s Chair.
According to Kellye Testy, president and CEO of the Law School Admission Council, “Stacy brings an impressive set of leadership competencies that will help advance legal education’s role in justice and democracy. Congrats to ASU. I cannot wait to see the accomplishments she will lead.”
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