A new voice for justice

Dean Mark Niles inspired by law school's mission

When a teacher discovered a broken toy in her second-grade classroom, she began questioning her students about what happened. A young Mark Niles immediately detected inconsistencies in one girl's story. 

She first said she hadn't touched it, but then said when she returned it to a shelf it wasn't broken. Niles was compelled to point this out to the class. 

"She cried and ran out of the room. It was my first successful cross-examination," the now dean of Seattle University School said with a laugh. "I remember thinking at that moment that I might want to be a lawyer." 

Mark Niles When he was a little older, he was inspired to become a teacher by Richard Bach's 1970 fable "Jonathan Livingston Seagull." Another book, "Simple Justice," about the lawyers, law professors and legal strategies that led to the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, helped him realize he could combine the two. He set out to become a law professor. 

"That 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," he said. 

Now he has reached the pinnacle of his career thus far, assuming the deanship at Seattle University School of Law, a law school that embraces the values of justice, diversity and excellence that he has clung to since childhood. 

That shared vision is what led Niles, an outstanding legal scholar and experienced academic leader, to pursue the deanship. Except for his years at Stanford Law School and Weslyan University, Niles spent his entire life and career in the Washington, D.C., area. But after his visits to the law school for his interviews and meeting the faculty, staff and students, he never hesitated to move across the country to take the job. 

"Accepting the appointment as dean of Seattle University School of Law has been the high point in my career. I did not hesitate to take on this wonderful opportunity to lead one of the most respected law schools in the country. As I get to know students, faculty, staff, alumni and member of the legal community, I am even more confident I made the right choice. The time I have spent at Seattle University School of Law has already exceeded my expectations."
Dean Mark Niles

Niles was drawn to the law school because of its strong commitment to social justice and academic excellence. He was impressed by the diversity of the student body, faculty and staff, the scholarly work of the professors, exceptional clinical programs, and the top-ranked Legal Writing Program. 

The university and law school feel fortunate to have found such an inspiring new leader.

"Dean Niles stood out among an exceptional group of finalists and a large pool of applicants as the right person to lead the School of Law," said President Stephen Sundborg, S.J. "He shares a commitment to academic excellence, social justice and diversity that are hallmarks of the education provided by Seattle University."

Niles came from American University Washington College of Law, where he was associate dean for academic affairs and professor. He has taught and specializes in civil procedure, administrative law, constitutional law, governmental liability, and law and literature.

A scholar and mentor

Niles is also a dedicated faculty mentor, said Anthony E. Varona, a professor at Washington College of Law who assumed Niles' associate dean role.

"I was one of many junior professors who Mark mentored and encouraged with great heart and soul. I would not have made it through the tenure track without his guidance and advice," Varona said. "He is the kind of selfless, generous senior colleague who makes a faculty a welcoming and cohesive one - a community of scholars and teachers who support one another and stay focused on the scholarly and educational mission of the institution. He is, in sum, an ideal academic colleague, mentor and friend. My friends and colleagues at Seattle Law are so lucky to have Mark as their dean."

Co-Chair of the Dean Search Committee, Janet Ainsworth, said the committee was impressed with Niles at its first meeting with him in Chicago. 

"He was so engaging, so genuine, and so thoughtful in his understanding of the challenges faced by legal education in today's world that the committee had no trouble at all imagining him as the right person to become our dean," Ainsworth said. "That first impression was further confirmed when Dean Niles visited the campus later on as one of the finalists for the deanship. In a pool of finalists that brought us national attention for its depth and quality, Dean Niles stood out.  We feel incredibly fortunate that Dean Niles also saw what we saw-that he is the ideal match to lead our law school to continue our strong upward trajectory in the coming years." 

Earlier in his career, Niles served as a clerk for the Honorable Francis Murnaghan, Jr., of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. He was an associate at the D.C. firm of Hogan and Hartson, and a staff attorney in the civil appellate division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where he argued cases in several federal circuit courts. He serves as the Reporter for the Maryland Civil Pattern Jury Instructions Committee of the Maryland State Bar Association.

Dean Mark Niles delivers his first scholarly presentation as part of the Influential Voices Series. Photo by Marcus Donner.

Niles has published numerous articles and essays on subjects including the Ninth Amendment, federal tort liability, airline security regulation, the first decade of the tenure of Justice Clarence Thomas, and the depiction of law and justice in American popular culture.

In September he kicked off the School of Law's Influential Voices series with a thought-provoking and well-received lecture exploring questions related to the new focus on preventing future crime through the prism of a discussion of a book and film, "Pre-Empting Justice: Pre-'Crime' in Fiction and Fact." Showcasing his intellect and creativity, he explored the serious practical, legal and moral questions created by the focus on preventing possible future crimes through an analysis of Philip K. Dick's 1956 science fiction short story "The Minority Report," and Steven Spielberg's 2002 film "Minority Report." 

A commitment to students

Though he is an accomplished leader, Niles says his favorite part of law school education is teaching and working with students. After his first year as dean, he fully intends to be back in the classroom, teaching civil procedure.                                                                                                                        

"There's nothing I love more than teaching a first-year class," he said.

Students appreciate that passion.

"We are excited to have Dean Niles build and lead this institution," said 3L Reyna Ramolete Hayashi, president of the Public Interest Law Foundation and a member of the Social Justice Coalition Steering Committee. She was a student representative on the Dean Search Committee. 

"Our social justice mission is what compelled him here, and we know it will continue to define his vision for the law school's future. We are thrilled about his enthusiasm to collaborate with students because he shares our commitment to advancing social justice, not just in an extracurricular sense but integrating it into all aspects of our legal education."

Dean Niles talks with Sharon Sakamoto ’84 and Linda Strout ’79.

Niles values working with students and welcomes their contributions. He learned an important lesson about that when he was a student himself at Stanford Law School. After completing a semester-long externship at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., he returned to Stanford. One of his good friends, Alexandra McKay (currently an executive vice president at Casey Family Programs Foundation in Seattle), and he organized and co-chaired the Coalition for a Diversified Faculty. The group had been inspired, in large part, by the study of the burgeoning scholarly discipline of Critical Race Theory and by some of its pioneers like his professor and mentor Chuck Lawrence and his current Seattle University School of Law colleague Richard Delgado. 

"The group was a true coalition of a wide range of student organizations dedicated to a single objective: the promotion of racial, gender, ethnic, sexual orientation, religious, national origin and other diversity in our law school," Niles said. "We worked for months on what we called an 'affirmative action plan' for law school hiring, going through scores of drafts before coming up with a finished product we were quite proud of." 

He and McKay created a product that everyone in the coalition was proud of, and united, they scheduled a meeting with the dean to discuss the proposal.

"We were shocked and disappointed to find that he was not interested in hearing the student perspective on the lack of diversity at the school nor the benefits that enhanced diversity could provide," Niles recalled.

Looking back, Niles understands part of the reason for the dean's dismissive response was his belief that his law school had done much in the pursuit of gender and racial justice in the decades since he was a law student, and the dean rightly felt a sense of pride in those achievements. 

But it still stings that they were so quickly shown the door, and he pledges to hear out students who have invested in their own ideas and proposals. 

"There is no reason why I as a dean shouldn't listen to a suggestion, and give students a fair hearing," he said. 

McKay recalls Niles' passion and intellect. 

It's hard to describe how much Mark participated in the law school experience," McKay said.  "Mark was the person in law school who could vigorously debate about critical race theory, Habermas and the public sphere, brainstorm about the lack of diverse tenured staff, and still be THE go-to person about sports or any pop-culture reference." 

Mark Niles talks with from left, State Supreme Court Justice Charles Johnson '76, Marlys Palumbo '82 and Tony Ravani '07 at a Dean’s Club event at the Rainier Club. Photo by Jennifer Richard.

Another classmate from Stanford, Rodney B. Younker of Summit Law Group in Seattle, also fondly recalls his law school days with Niles. 

"I've said many times that I learned more from the people I was in law school with than the faculty, because it was such a fascinating group of people who were so smart and capable and interesting, and Mark was certainly one of them," Younker said. 

Younker said they shared a diverse household of law students including Niles, an African American from D.C, Younker, a "WASP" from the Pacific Northwest, a Hispanic student from Cleveland and a Jewish student from New York. 

"We called ourselves the multicultural household," Younker said. "It was the most delightful and incredible education being around so many viewpoints. Mark is the kind of person you can really talk to. You can discuss issues with him, like diversity, and he's not going to get judgmental or defensive. You can learn a lot from him." 

Plus, Younker said, Niles is a good basketball partner and a great friend. 

"We haven't spent as much time together in the last 15 years as we would have liked," Younker said. "I leaned on him pretty hard to come here because I thought it would be good fun to have him here." 

Advancing the law school 

Despite his impressive background and position, Niles remains modest. He seems casual, often seen around the law school without a tie and consistently greeting people with a genuine smile and sense of humor, but he takes quite seriously his role as dean and his charge of advancing the law school. 

Niles aims to raise the regional and national presence of the law school, and to support faculty and students. Some of his goals include developing an 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 the law school's social justice mission and enhancing the international presence of the law school. He wants to increase non-tuition based income for the law school by creating revenue-generating programs and development outreach. 

"Though the law school is in a very strong position, there is great potential here and room for growth," he said. "I won't rest on the laurels of what has already been accomplished." 

He acknowledges that graduates of all law schools are facing a difficult job market. 

"I want to work very hard to assist our graduates in finding employment in their field of interest," he said. 

Niles feels at home in Seattle, and he relishes the opportunity to reconnect with friends here and to reach out to alumni and greater legal community. He has been meeting with alumni and other members of the legal community and judiciary, bar associations, civic leaders and access to  justice advocates. There will be many opportunities for people to meet him at the law school, in the Seattle and Tacoma areas, and beyond. Niles is working to expand opportunities for students and graduates farther from Seattle, meeting with alumni and employers in New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. 

The dean’s wife, Carolyn, and son, Max, attended a reception with him. Daughter Grayce couldn’t make it that night.

"I have been amazed at the support I have received from members of the legal community who are not alums of the law school or the university. The commitment of the School of Law to promote social justice in Seattle, throughout Washington and the nation has clearly given rise to a legion of supporters, which is an immeasurable asset to me and to the school." 

His family remains his strongest support. His mother, Marianne Coleman Niles, went to law school at Georgetown as a second career when Niles was a teenager, and her example sets a precedent for him. 

"My mother has been my biggest influence, both in terms of the way she instilled her values and expectations in me as a child, and also because 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." 

In his increasingly limited spare time now that he is dean, Niles enjoys sports, theater, movies and good television. But his favorite thing to do is spend time with his wife, Carolyn, and children Max, 10, and Grayce, 14. 

"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," he said. "They are the lights of my life and my number one priority.