Stacy Leeds ‘00: Hastie Fellowship Was ‘Immeasurably Valuable’

A photo of Stacy Leeds standing with arms crossed in front of a polished stone wall with a window nearby. She is of Native American descent with light brown wavy hair that is chin-length, light color eyes, and she is wearing a black jacket featuring golden buttons over a patterned top. She is smiling confidently a the camera.
Stacy Leeds

Stacy Leeds, the first Indigenous woman to serve as a law school dean, said the Hastie Fellowship at University of Wisconsin Law School gave her two amazing gifts: time and mentorship.

“On one hand, it was a very isolating time, in a good way, to have the privilege and luxury to have that much time to write and develop your pathway in research and scholarship,” said Leeds, the Willard H. Pedrick Dean and Regents Professor of Law at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “You’re never going to have that in your life again with the people who were mentoring you along. That mentorship – teaching you the process of how to go on the law teaching market, what that looks like and how to be successful in navigating all these law schools – that piece alone was immeasurably valuable.”

Leeds, who came to UW Law from 1998-2000, was formally mentored by the late Jane Larson on her empirical work examining whether state and federal courts honored Tribal court judgments, “one of those Classic Law in Action in society situations.” But she also appreciated support from current faculty members Heinz Klug and Richard Monette and emeritus faculty members Linda Greene and Peter Carstensen.

“One of the many things that was smart about Wisconsin’s way of doing things is that, at most other law schools, they would have naturally paired me with the Indian law person, and I would have been typecast and it would have only been an echo chamber,” she said. Learning how to be a generalist helped her be taken more seriously in the law school hiring process and eventually made her a more effective dean, she added.

Leeds originally did not intend to pursue law. She had planned to become a history teacher and a basketball coach – until she had her “lightbulb moment” during an undergraduate course on Indian child welfare at Washington University in St. Louis.

“The project in this class was mock testimony for Congress, trying to advocate for some change in the law relative to Native children,” she explained. “I liked the adrenaline of this public advocacy piece; I loved the subject matter and how it ties into responses to historical trauma and federal policies toward Native people.”

Earning her J.D. at the University of Tulsa in her home state of Oklahoma was “the story of how one or two people can radically change your direction,” Leeds said.

“I’m a big believer in the power of one person to shift somebody’s trajectory. People should realize how much their words, actions and time can have profound impacts.”

A Native faculty member, G. William Rice, encouraged her to consider becoming a professor. And Judith Royster, a UW Law grad who taught there, led her to consider the Hastie Fellowship.

Leeds interviewed when she was still a 3L and got accepted, under the stipulation that she had to practice law for a couple of years first. Which she did, clerking for a Muscogee Creek Nation judge during Big Tobacco litigation.

Once she got to UW Law in 1998, she overlapped with other fellows Thomas Mitchell, Michael Green, Adele Morrison and Michele Goodwin. This unique set of circumstances created “an amazing moment.”

“We had a great cohort of people in the same or similar track,” said Leeds. “Forming those bonds was really special, and we’ve stayed in touch and followed each other’s careers ever since.”

Leeds, a member of the Cherokee Nation, chose her first few positions in the early 2000s at law schools that would prioritize and grow their Indian law programs.

She became the first tenure-track person to run the Northern Plains Indian Law Center at the University of North Dakota, where she spent an “intense” and “awesome” three years before moving to the University of Kansas to do similar work for eight years.

In 2011, Leeds became dean of University of Arkansas School of Law, a position she held for seven years before running into an opportunity that “wasn’t on [her] crystal ball or radar.” She became the inaugural Vice Chancellor for Economic Development at University of Arkansas, thanks to her longevity as the senior dean on campus and her experience as a lawyer able to navigate the business community.

A photo of Stacy Leeds as she speaks into a microphone at an event. She is a Native American descent with light brown wavy hair that is chin-length, what appear to be green or hazel eyes, and she is wearing a black jacket featuring golden buttons over a patterned top. She is smiling as she speaks.
Stacy Leeds speaks at an event.

Leeds described the role, which could be considered complicated, in simple terms: “Economic development is all about empowerment. How do you take the great knowledge and technology of universities and deploy those into society for good?”

After three years in a different realm, in 2020, Leeds wanted to get back to the core of Native American law and places with the biggest potential impact. She joined the Indian law faculty at Arizona State University (ASU), where the dean stepped down just three months after she arrived.

“I was woefully uninterested at first because I had been there, done that, gotten the T-shirt, but as I spent more time here and looked at the possibilities and came to know the people and the place, I decided that I wanted to give the law dean role another go, but it had to be different,” she explained.

Leeds became dean at ASU in February.

“A lot of the difference is this university, the pace and the scale are off the charts, and that’s fun for me,” she said.

The other emphasis is on wellness. Leeds has chronicled her journey, which has included hiking, going vegan and giving up coffee, on IndigenousWell.

Her entries are honest and interwoven with humor, like this one after an extreme fitness retreat last summer to celebrate her husband’s birthday: “Despite a week of consuming zero sugar, zero caffeine, zero alcohol, almost zero carbs and zero animal products while maintaining a strict 1,400-calories-per-day regimen of intense physical activity, we are staying married.”

Reflecting on the Hastie program’s 50th anniversary, Leeds points to the importance of what Jones did in the beginning.

“The dean and other faculty would say, ‘We’d be happy to hire somebody from a diverse background if they were qualified.’ Then his frustration would be, ‘I can look all around the country and see all these brilliant people, but because they don’t come from a path that fits your narrative, you can’t think of them the same way.’ The whole program started because Jim pressed the issue of ‘If you’re serious, let’s figure out how to make this happen and create a pathway.’”

Creating her own pathways for ASU students, faculty and staff, Leeds is influencing lives in a way others influenced her.

“As a first-generation college student, I was so blessed with mentors who saw a spark in me and invested of themselves,” she said. “I’m a big believer in the power of one person to shift somebody’s trajectory. People should realize how much their words, actions and time can have profound impacts. That’s what I try to push out across all our groups and teams at the law school. In a big class of 200 to 300 students coming in, you can personally impact every one of them.”

By Jennie Broecker