The new year is getting off to a great start for Stacy Leeds.
On Feb. 1, she becomes the first Native American female dean of Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.
And on Feb. 9, the renowned legal scholar will be sworn in as ASU Regents Professor of Law — one of the most prestigious honors a faculty member can receive. The distinction goes to tenured professors who have made unique contributions to the quality of the university.
According to Leeds, being named Regents Professor was unexpected.
“Well, it took me completely by surprise because I had no idea that I was in the mix or that I was under consideration,” said Leeds, with a humble smile. “So the powers-that-be across our campus keep good secrets on occasion.”
Leeds is among a select group that makes up less than 3% of ASU’s faculty, and is one of four professors selected this year. Members of this elite circle are recognized for their research by both local and national colleagues.
“This is great news,” said Brian Gallini, who was associate dean while Leeds was dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law.
“Stacy is hard-working, compassionate and has a great sense of humor, all of which comes together to form a superior leadership style and corresponding positive culture. (She) approached each task with an admirable mix of calm, evenness and a refreshing amount of common sense that truly built up everyone around her," said Gallini, who is now dean of Willamette University College of Law.
Career and contributions
Leeds’ extensive experience and contributions certainly qualify her for the position of Regents Professor. She is a scholar of Indigenous law and policy, and an experienced leader in economic development and conflict resolution. She is a trailblazer with a passion for both scholarship and public service.
Her legal expertise has had a powerful impact on Native American communities throughout the nation. Leeds was the first woman to serve as a justice for the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court and was recently appointed founding board member on the Foundation for America’s Public Lands, a congressionally chartered nonprofit.
Leeds is also the Foundation Professor of Law and Leadership at ASU and a leading educator in Native American law with a commitment to helping the next generation of lawyers.
“It is threading the needle between scholarly work and on-the-ground work in the communities. For me, I would never envision doing one or the other," Leeds said. "So the thing that has probably been the single most important thing is that I have been given the space to really be in both of those universes. They inform one another.”
Leeds says all of this has enriched both her teaching and research “in ways that I can’t imagine.”
The Indigenous influence
Leeds is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and the seeds of her success were planted while on the Muscogee (Creek) and Cherokee reservations in Oklahoma, where she lived most of her life.
It was this culture, along with support from many mentors, that led to a career in law and eventually to where she is today.
“I come from a Native American community and that’s the reason that I went to law school in the first place,” she said. “There were still so few Native American attorneys able to represent tribes. I knew I wanted to help empower communities.”
In the 1970s, modern day tribal governments started to reform and get their strength. Leeds watched the wholesale redevelopment of sovereignty and nations all around her.
“I grew up alongside these emerging tribal governments,” Leeds said. “So advocacy was a very natural space. I can't remember a time when I had a consciousness that didn't involve that.”
Leeds recalls the time when Wilma Mankiller, the chief of the Cherokee Nation, visited her elementary school. She stored away her observations of Mankiller’s approach to leadership.
“She impacted me,” Leeds said. “Not just seeing a woman in this position, but seeing a person in a position that was uniquely herself in that role. She didn't take on the identity of what she was doing. She was doing work, but it wasn't like that role took her identity away from her.”
At some point Leeds came to understand two things — what she wanted to do and what it would take to do it.
“It was very easy to connect the dots that, if I became educated and went back to work for the tribes, I was going to make a big difference.”
The combination of the political environment of her youth and her pursuit of law was a perfect pairing. Her understanding of discrimination and social injustice led her to advocate for Native American nations, as well as other underrepresented cultures.
“It was something that resonated with me all along,” Leeds said. “I realized I did not have to limit my work to the Native American community, but I could help all marginalized communities — particularly in the legal profession.”
Top photo: Stacy Leeds, newly named Regents Professor and Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law Dean. Photo by Armand Saavedra