When Stacy Leeds accepted the position of dean at the University of Arkansas School of Law, she made history. Since 2011, she’s served as the only known Native American woman to lead a law school in the country.
“I’m grateful for the opportunities that I’ve been given, but I also know that it means that I am playing a pretty profound mentoring role for those who will come after me,” says Leeds, who began another five-year term in July.
A member of the Cherokee Nation, Leeds grew up in an Oklahoma town surrounded by fellow Native Americans. As a first-generation college student, she entered Washington University in St. Louis intending to become a history teacher and basketball coach. However, she experienced an enlightening moment during a social work course in her junior year.
The class, which focused on advocacy skills, sparked her interest in studying law. But “it wasn’t just that I wanted to go to law school, per se,” she explains. “I knew that I wanted to study, more specifically, American Indian law issues.”
After receiving a bachelor’s from Washington in 1994, she pursued a J.D. at the University of Tulsa because of its reputation for specializing in Native American issues. “It also got me within an hour of my hometown and all of my family — so that was a nice homecoming after being away for college,” she says.
Leeds graduated from Tulsa in 1997, and received a fellowship at the University of Wisconsin. The college’s Master of Laws program was “designed to try to get people of color and people from first-generation families into law teaching,” she says.
Leeds graduated from Wisconsin in 2000, and began her teaching career there. As “an incredibly young law professor” — still in her 20s — she found engaging students to be an easy task, she says. Over time, students began to seek out her courses specifically, and she has continued to have “very close relationships with students” as a mentor.
“It’s something that I still prioritize and value,” Leeds says, adding that she periodically teaches courses as dean.
Throughout her teaching career, Leeds has consistently found herself in leadership roles. For instance, while teaching at the University of North Dakota School of Law, she directed the school’s Northern Plains Indian Law Center. As a professor at the Kansas School of Law, she served as director of the Tribal Law and Government Center.
These administrative positions prompted her to pursue an MBA, which she received from the University of Tennessee in 2010.
At Arkansas, Leeds is known for cultivating pipelines for marginalized students. The law school’s Summer Leadership Summit provides high school students from American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian descents to spend time on a college campus for the first time. The program focuses on food and agriculture to encourage students to address a dire need in tribal communities, Leeds says.
“There is a great energy right now about how the tribe can control some of the economic development within their communities and how we [can gain] the ability to feed ourselves and not have to rely on outside sources for food.”
In addition, Leeds was instrumental in implementing the law school’s SPPARK program. The program is a summer course for undergraduate juniors and seniors attending historically or predominantly minority universities are first-generation college students, and experience financial challenges.
“We try to expose them as best as possible to what they might expect in law school and try to help them round out their skills so they’ll be successful as they apply to law schools,” Leeds says.
The program also allows students to meet several lawyers and judges from the community “because I know that if they were like me, they may have met one attorney or two attorneys in their whole life,” Leeds says, adding that these individuals sometimes become longtime mentors for students.
For contributions such as these, Leeds was honored by the American Bar Association with the Spirit of Excellence Award for promoting a more racially and ethnically diverse legal profession in 2013.
In addition, U.S. News & World Report recently recognized the University of Arkansas for being among the country’s top law schools where alumni have the least debt. While being a state college contributes to this, Leeds says she ensures that when tuition hikes occur, it’s never “just a plan to increase tuition without direct need.”
Keeping costs down is a priority, she says, because it not only attracts students to the college, but when they graduate, it gives them more flexibility in considering the kinds of jobs they take and communities they serve.
Considering all of her achievements, Leeds says that accepting the offer to renew her position as dean seemed like a good fit.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished in the last five years, so the ability to stay on and continue moving forward with our programs was really attractive,” she says. “I have a lot of energy left for continuing to carry the campus forward, so it just seemed like natural progression for me to stay on for a little while longer.”