Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Profile / Mario Barnes: Forging a Path to Meaningful Inclusion

Profile / Mario Barnes: Forging a Path to Meaningful Inclusion

September 2018 Bar Bulletin

from the UW School of Law

You may hear Mario Barnes before you see him; his warm, booming voice reaching down the law school hallways. So, it may not come as a surprise to learn that his powerful voice was honed in theater classes at his performing arts magnet school. As the new Toni Rembe Dean of the University of Washington School of Law, Barnes will have plenty of opportunities to use his voice to advance the law school’s mission and share his passion for increasing access to legal education and his commitment to inclusive excellence.

Barnes’s belief in the power of education to transform lives runs deep. When he was a child, his grandmothers encouraged his every academic pursuit, including college. At a time when no one had completed a four-year degree in his family, he embodied his grandmothers’ belief in education as a tool to create opportunity. For Barnes, the greatest moment came when his great-grandmother, despite her poor health, was able to see him receive his college diploma and speak at commencement.

“It was not just important for her, but incredibly important for me that she lived to see that moment,” Barnes said. “It creates reverberations throughout a family. These things are important as family historic markers for the value of education, and having deep family commitments is key.”

It wasn’t until he was a junior in college that Barnes saw law as a viable career. While he had been on the mock trial team in high school, he primarily enjoyed performing the part of lawyer as a means to sharpen his acting skills. African-American studies classes in college, including African-American economic history and African-Americans and legislation, helped him see two things: that economic conditions for black families were tied to structural forms of inequality and that the law could be used as a tool to either disrupt or maintain that disadvantage.

Barnes knew he wanted to further his education to explore and tackle these fundamental societal inequalities. As an ROTC scholarship recipient, he could not immediately attend law school after graduation, but the Navy provided him several opportunities to pursue his legal interests. Barnes initially was appointed as a legal officer for his ship, which allowed him to connect with JAG lawyers and learn about a Navy program that provided funding for law school. The odds were stacked against him — just timing the LSAT to coincide with when he was in port was tricky enough. But he applied and was one of five individuals selected, Navy-wide, for the program.

Barnes served a total of 23 years on active and reserve duty with the Navy, and he credits the Navy for the academic opportunities he would not have otherwise been able to afford. As a JAG on active duty, he served as a prosecutor, defense counsel, staff judge advocate, special assistant U.S. attorney and on the commission that investigated the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. His reserve assignments included service with the Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare Command in San Diego, the Navy Inspector General’s Office in Washington, D.C., and U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa.

Toward the end of his obligated active service, Barnes began to consider his next career move. While catching up with one his favorite law school professors, Angela Harris, Barnes explained how he was at a professional crossroads. Harris reminded him of his interest to enter academia and, despite his protests that he did not have the traditional background, insisted on helping him reach his goal. After creating a transition plan, Harris helped him weigh his options. Barnes ultimately accepted the William H. Hastie Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin School of Law, which included a fully funded LLM program.

With two full years of writing and teaching, Barnes secured his first tenure-track teaching position at the University of Miami School of Law, where he taught criminal law, criminal procedure, constitutional law and national security law for five years. Then came the call from Erwin Chemerinsky, who asked Barnes to join him at the University of California, Irvine, and help build California’s first new public law school in more than 40 years.

Barnes embraced the opportunity to reimagine legal education at UCI Law. From the curriculum to policies to centers of excellence, he helped shape the institution from the ground up. In his time there, Barnes held several administrative appointments including senior associate dean for academic affairs, co-director of the UCI Center on Law, Equality and Race, and associate dean for research and faculty development.

“In eight years together at University of California, Irvine School of Law, I saw that Mario is a terrific teacher, scholar and administrator,” said Chemerinsky, Barnes’s frequent co-author, and now dean and Jesse Choper Distinguished Professor of Law at Berkeley Law School. “He did a superb job for many years as an associate dean at UCI.” “The UW School of Law is so incredibly fortunate to have Mario Barnes as its new dean,” he continued. “His military background provides him a wealth of experience as an administrator and a leader. At the same time, he is a wonderfully warm and compassionate person.”

While Barnes thoroughly enjoyed his work at UCI Law, he was immediately intrigued when the Toni Rembe Deanship at UW Law opened last year when Dean Kellye Testy stepped down after eight years at the helm. The school’s faculty and program reputation drew him to apply, and as an applicant, he learned that UW Law shared his commitment to inclusive excellence, innovation, social justice and preparing students to be practice-ready from the outset.

UW President Ana Mari Cauce and Provost Gerald Baldasty cited his expertise in diversity and equity as a deciding factor for his selection to lead the law school, and on July 5, he became the second African-American lawyer (after Joe Knight) to lead the law school. “Having watched the arc of his impressive academic career, I have the utmost confidence in Mario’s leadership,” Testy said. “Mario brings a well-earned national reputation for academic excellence, strong administrative skills and an abiding commitment to the rule of law.”

As a scholar, Barnes is recognized nationally for his research on the legal and social implications of race and gender, primarily in the areas of employment, education, criminal law and military law. His work brings together critical theory — the theoretical approach of examining power and inequality — and socio-legal theories. Now that Barnes has had a few weeks under his belt at UW Law, he can certainly relate to the analogy of drinking from a fire hose; but rather than feel overwhelmed, he has been encouraged by the faculty’s and staff’s deep commitment to the institution. He has also seen the UW Law community reflect the values that drew him, including the desire to keep public education accessible to the greatest variety of students.

Access to public education is deeply personal to Barnes, who has often said that affordable public education changed his life. Until he attended college, he could not imagine a life beyond the community he grew up in, and the experience allowed him to see a future determined by his potential and ambition, rather than his origins. At UW, the law school has done a great job at admitting diverse classes, Barnes said, but meaningful inclusion will mean more than improving numbers. Rather, it will also emphasize institutional culture.

“Within our community, how do we understand the workings of privilege and difference?” Barnes posits. “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.’” For Barnes, a critical step on the road to meaningful inclusion involves developing the capacity to speak honestly but with empathy when issues arise within the community. According to his colleagues, he’s just the man for the job.

“Mario is one of the most effective leaders I know,” said Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean-designate for Boston University School of Law. “He is essentially unrivaled in his ability to bring people together and create community. Mario has a special ability to connect with people, and I mean every type and kind of person. He does not have an insincere bone in his body.” Likewise, Kaaryn Gustafson, professor of law and director of the Center on Law, Equality and Race at UC Irvine Law, has been impressed with Barnes’s energy for community building since they met more than 25 years ago. “Despite the passage of time, his energy remains boundless,” she said. “He has helped build many communities and the folks at UW are lucky to have him at the helm building and championing theirs.”

Join UW Law as we celebrate Mario L. Barnes’s appointment as the new Toni Rembe Dean and introduce him to the Western Washington legal community from 5 to 7 p.m. on Sept. 13 at William H. Gates Hall. To register for the reception, visit

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