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Seattle University


Q&A with Mark Niles

Written by Mike Thee
September 13, 2010

This summer, Mark Niles began as dean of Seattle University School of Law. Regarded as an outstanding legal scholar and experienced academic leader, Niles previously served as associate dean for academic affairs and professor at American University, Washington College of Law. In mid-August, as SU's law school prepared to begin the semester, The Commons caught up with the new dean to get his thoughts on why he came to SU, how he's liking it so far, why he chose to get into law in the first place and many, many other subjects.

The Commons: When you were a candidate for the deanship, what was it about the law school and the university that stood out most for you? 

Dean Mark Niles: The commitment to social justice. Very few law schools have such a strong and institutional defining mission. Coming up with, and sticking to a mission, is something that occupies an inordinate amount of time and energy and most educational institutions. Here, the mission is clearly defined and central to both the law school and the university. And it is a mission that is close to my heart and my personal values. 

I was also impressed with the very engaged and productive faculty, the exceptional clinical programs, the nationally renowned legal writing program, and the ARC (Academic Resource Center) program and the support it provides for a wide range of law students who are essential to the school and its ongoing mission. And the location in Seattle was certainly a plus. 

The Commons: Now that you’ve been here a month or so, what have been your initial impressions of the school? The university? 

MN: I have been extremely impressed with the quality and commitment of the students. I have various opportunities to meet with students –my new research assistant, the staff of a new law journal, students attending the Access to Justice Conference in Wenatchee, and I have found all of them to be extremely bright, engaging and committed to this law school. 

My colleagues in the law school, faculty and staff, have been enthusiastic about my arrival and supportive of me personally and professionally. And the president, the provost and my fellow deans and the university officials I have had the chance to meet have made me feel very much at home and I have already developed excellent working relationships that I look forward to enhancing over time. 

The Commons: How about Seattle?  

MN: Seattle has been great! It was pretty hot when I got here, but coming from DC I was used to it (less air conditioning here, though). But the best thing about the city has been all the wonderful people I have already met. The alumni have also shown wonderful enthusiasm for me and my arrival and it has been an absolute pleasure to meet with so many alums who are proud of and committed to their law school. But also, and this is one of the surprises I have experienced,  I have been amazed and the support I have received from members of the Seattle community who are not alums of the law school or the university. The commitment of SU School of Law to promoting social justice in  Seattle and throughout Washington has clearly given rise to a legion of otherwise non-affiliated supporters, which is an immeasurable asset to me and to the school. 

The Commons: Where do you see the law school heading in the years ahead? 

MN: I would very much like the law school to develop a new and innovative first-year curriculum that brings subjects and pedagogical approaches not traditionally part of the first-year experience in law school and that is also endemic of our social justice mission. I would also like to enhance the international presence of the law school both in terms of bringing more international students to study here in JD and LLM programs and to provide more opportunities for our students to study abroad. I would like to work to further enhance our development and alumni relations achievements, beginning with the hiring of a replacement for the invaluable Susan Ahearn, who is retiring this year. And I want to work very hard to assist our graduates in finding employment in their field of interest in this very challenging legal market. 

The Commons: What drew you to the field of law?

MN: Well, when I was in second grade I cross-examined a classmate and made her cry! I remember thinking at that moment that I might want to be a lawyer. Then I read the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull and decided I wanted to be a teacher. After a relatively short period of uncertainty, I decided to combine the two and become a law professor. My mother went to law school as a second career when I was a teenager and her example played a large role in my career planning. And sometime in high school I read the book Simple Justice about the lawyers, law professors and legal strategy that lead to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. This book taught me the incredible role that lawyers and legal educators can play in advancing the cause of social justice, and I always hoped that I could be a part of bringing about needed social change in my lifetime.

The Commons: If you hadn’t gone into law, what do you think you’d be doing now?

MN: I love to write and I love sports and the entertainment industry so maybe a sports writer or film or theater critic. I am not sure if I am creative enough to be a filmmaker or fiction author, and I know I was never good enough to play centerfield in the majors!

The Commons: Who’s been your biggest influence, and why?

MN: I guess my biggest influence has been my mother both in terms of the way she instilled her values and expectations in me as a child, and also since I followed her into the legal profession.  She is a remarkably talented and successful lawyer who is an impeccable pillar of her community, and I hope that I have and can live up to her example.

The Commons: What’s something from your profession or your life so far that has given you the most pride?

MN: The thing in my life that I am most proud of is the wonderful choice I made in a wife and the two great kids that we are raising. They are the lights of my life and my number one priority.

Professionally, the thing that I am most proud of is the offer I received to take on the job of dean of Seattle University School of Law. The other candidates for the position were truly exceptional, and it is the honor of my career thus far to have been chosen from among the finalists for the position.

The Commons: What do you like to do in your spare time? 

MN: I love sports and movies and theater (particularly Shakespeare, but everything really) and good television. But mostly I like doing anything that I can with my kids.

The Commons: Have you read anything recreationally recently that you would recommend to your colleagues here at SU?

MN: I am reading a book about the history of the Jesuit Order that was recommended to me by several people including my friend and colleague John McKay. I think it is good book for anyone to who has the privilege of working in a Jesuit academic institution.