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 and it was my first successful cross-examination,” the new dean of Seattle University School of Law says with a laugh. “I remember thinking at that moment that I might want to be a lawyer.”
When he was a little older, Niles was inspired by Richard Bach’s 1970 fable Jonathan Livingston Seagull to become a teacher. Another book, Simple Justice, about the lawyers, law professors and legal strategy 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 Niles has reached what is 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.
“Very few law schools have such a strong and institutional defining mission as our commitment to educating outstanding lawyers to be leaders for a just and humane world,” he said. “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.”
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, 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.
“I was impressed with the diversity of the law school and in Seattle, the very engaged and productive faculty, the exceptional clinical programs, the nationally renowned legal writing program, and the Academic Resource Program and the support it provides for a wide range of law students who are essential to the school and its ongoing mission,” Niles said.
“I remain extremely impressed with the quality and commitment of the students. I am honored to have been chosen and could not be more excited about the opportunity to help lead one of the most highly regarded and well-respected law schools in the nation.”
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.
Earlier in his career, Niles, a graduate of Stanford Law School and Wesleyan University, 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.
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.”
Though he is an accomplished leader, Niles’ 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.
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 1L experience in law school, and that is also endemic of the law school’s social justice mission and enhances the international presence of the law school. 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 relishes the opportunity to reconnect with friends here and to reach out to alumni and the greater legal community. He has been meeting with members of the King County Bar Association, minority bar associations, civic leaders, access to justice advocates, members of the judiciary and others. There will be many opportunities for people to come to the law school to meet him and to engage with him at events in the community.
Niles is also working to expand opportunities for students and graduates farther from Seattle, meeting with alumni in New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
“I have been amazed by the support I have received from members of the legal community who are not alums of the law school or the university,” Niles said.
“The commitment of the School of Law to promoting 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.”