Meet Mario Barnes
Mario Barnes, a nationally recognized scholar for his research on the legal and social implications of race and gender, will officially assume the Toni R. Rembe deanship of UW School of Law on July 5, 2018.
Barnes joins UW after serving as professor and senior associate dean for academic affairs at UC Irvine School of Law. Prior to his academic career, Barnes spent 12 years on active duty in the U.S. Navy, including service as a prosecutor, defense counsel and special assistant U.S. attorney.
In an interview, Barnes discusses his first impressions of UW Law, the importance of public schools’ access missions, meaningful inclusion and more.
Question: First of all, congratulations on being named the new dean of UW Law. Can you share your initial reaction when you got the news?
Mario Barnes: At the time I received the news, I was co-hosting a dinner of academics as part of a conference on race, debt and inequality. I received the call at the dinner table and was so overwhelmed that I responded with what could only be described as joyful exultation. My joy was quickly replaced by a deep sense of gratitude toward everyone who had been involved in my hiring process at the University of Washington and the many people who have invested time and energy in me over my career.
Question: You’ve mentioned that the most important part of a public school is its access mission. What has that meant to you personally, and how do you see this mission at work within UW Law?
Mario Barnes: It is not an overstatement to say that access to an affordable public education changed my life. Until I was able to attend college, I could not really imagine a life for myself beyond the community in which I grew up. That community suffered from blight, neglect and other challenging social problems. Attending college helped me to see a future dictated by my potential and ambition rather than my origins, and that I could make a positive contribution to society. I, however, would not have been able to attend college or law school without the deep investments states made to keep public education affordable. Though state support for public education has waned since I graduated, one of my goals at UW is to ensure that the law school remains accessible. As I stated during my visit, UW Law has done a great job at admitting diverse classes. Moving forward, we must stay broadly committed to inclusiveness goals, but especially thoughtful regarding socioeconomic diversity.
Question: What first impressions of UW Law did you gain through the search process?
Mario Barnes: My first impressions upon arriving at UW Law for my visit were that people were deeply engaged in the mission of the school, but also incredibly nice. In my conversations with various faculty, staff, students and alumni, it became very clear just how much they love and value the institution. This great sense of shared community thoroughly impressed me and figured prominently in my decision to accept the deanship. Knowing that one is joining an environment where this level of commitment and civility exists is inspiring.
Question: What will be your initial priorities once you have officially assumed your role?
Mario Barnes: In my first few weeks in the position, I believe it will be crucial to meet with as many stakeholders as possible from among faculty, staff, students, alumni and business/community leaders to assess the sense of shared values, and listen to their insights on the state of the law school and its future. I also think it will be necessary to undertake a process of working with those stakeholders to engage in strategic planning to identify our needs, strengths and goals. This will help us to set our priorities. Though initial plans may revolve around gaining information and initiating a strategic planning process, my overarching goal will be to take steps to promote a stable and emotionally healthy environment that allows our students, faculty and staff to thrive.
Question: You’ve said that moving from representation to true and meaningful inclusion is necessary for expanding diversity. What does this look like for our community at UW Law?
Mario Barnes: Though having an institution that is reflective of society’s diversity is important, at UW Law I believe meaningful inclusion will mean more than a commitment to improving numbers. Rather, it will include an emphasis on institutional culture. Within our community, how do we understand the workings of privilege and difference? What are our commitments to ensuring that our community pays attention and responds to conditions that potentially disrespect or devalue anyone? In other words, we need to be a community that is mindful and respectful of what it feels like to be someone who is “not us.”
As an educational environment, I hope we can do this, in part, through intellectual engagements around matters that often arise inside and outside of the classroom, such as defining equality, accommodation, critical mass, micro-aggressions, implicit bias, stereotype threat, etc. A critical step on the road to meaningful inclusion is to ensure we have developed the capacity to speak honestly but with empathy when issues arise within the community. We will also need to assess whether the policies we have in place serve the purposes of demonstrating to each member of our community that they are welcomed and valued.
Question: If you were speaking with a group of UW Law students, what would you want them to learn about you and your hopes for their experience at the law school?
Mario Barnes: Though some may find it strange, I actually loved my time in law school. In addition to deeply appreciating what I was learning in class, I was also a member of several nurturing communities, many of whose members remain among my closest friends. In law school, supported by a faculty member who remains a mentor to this day, I also developed my interest in becoming an academic. I would, therefore, wish for each of our students that they build relationships and establish supportive networks that will sustain them within law school and beyond. I also hope that each of our students develop their professional passion, whatever it turns out to be. Finally, I would remind them that during the periods where law school feels difficult or overwhelming to try to recall the persons, motivation and commitments that led them to UW Law. Recalling my inspiration has always been critical to sustaining my drive.
Question: What are you currently reading?
Mario Barnes: I typically read multiple books simultaneously. Currently, those books are Toni Morrison’s “The Origin of Others” and Ta Nehisi Coates, “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.”
Question: What do you like to do for fun?
Mario Barnes: For fun, I enjoy running, tennis and wine collecting—with a particular preference for Southern Rhone Valley reds.