A storied legal educator, author and researcher, Lolita Buckner Inniss began work as Colorado Law’s dean in July 2021. She is the first Black dean and second female dean in the law school’s history. Her book, The Princeton Fugitive Slave, was named one of five books white leaders should read. Though hailing from California, Inniss has strong family ties to Colorado.
You started as dean at CU Law in July 2021. What drew you to this position and CU Boulder?
I would have to say the outstanding faculty and students. I have been familiar generally with CU Boulder over the course of my career. Colorado Law is, in my view, one of the nation’s great law schools. I’ve always really admired it.
Tell us about your book. What prompted you to write it?
The Princeton Fugitive Slave was a labor of love. When I was a first-year student at Princeton, I was sitting around in the library plaza and this older gentleman walked up to me. He told me the story of a man named James Collins Johnson, an escaped slave who was working at Princeton University in 1843 when he was arrested and tried as a fugitive.
I thought it was such a cool story. It sounded like a fairy tale. Years later, after I had completed my PhD, I finally felt like it was time to write it down. I spent about eight years digging into archives and newspaper articles. The story that I was able to flesh out is what became the book.
What are some of your main research interests?
Shortly after I started on The Princeton Fugitive Slave, I began hearing about other universities studying the roles that slavery had played in their pasts. Schools all over the country are discovering their roots in slavery, or at least their relationship with it — even lots of schools founded after the Civil War are based on the profits from slavery.
Tell us about a few more of your upcoming projects.
One of them is a forthcoming book that I’m writing with Professor Bridget Crawford at Pace Law comparing and contrasting the social and legal norms around the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements. The core question is: How is it that Black Lives Matter received and receives so much social pushback, whereas the Me Too movement has, relatively speaking, blossomed? Another project is work that I’m doing with an International Comparative Law Society regarding contemporary slavery.
The pandemic has impacted education and work as we know it, and in this issue we’re examining student resilience. How has the pandemic impacted Colorado Law students and legal education at CU Boulder?
I have been delighted, encouraged and proud to see how Colorado Law students have managed this crisis. Many students have had family members who grew ill, many have lost jobs — all sorts of difficulties. And yet the students I have met in person so far, they are thrilled to be back. They are ready to meet the challenge.
I think also in terms of resilience, a big part of student and staff resilience involves embracing the concept of grace. Grace means giving yourself permission not to be perfect and giving yourself permission to do things differently than you have in the past.
"Grace means giving yourself permission not to be perfect and giving yourself permission to do things differently than you have in the past."
You mentioned your interest in college history and slavery. Do you have any information about CU's historical ties to slavery?
That is one of my fledgling projects. You typically have to drill down and ask: Who are the donors? Where do they come from? Where did their wealth come from? How do law and society play a key role? And what you find is often slavery. I haven’t been able to find a lot of evidence yet, but certainly a lot of the figures and the wealth that helped to start these endeavors likely had wealth with ties to slavery.
You had familial ties in Colorado. How does it feel to be back?
One of my great-great-grandfathers served in the Civil War. He came to Colorado after the war was over because he heard that this was a great place with lots of opportunity.
The closest ancestor of mine that I knew was here is my grandmother. They lived in Five Points in Denver when she was a child. She says it was so vibrant. I’ve visited since I’ve started the job, and it's been amazing. When you grow up hearing stories about a place you’ve never been, there is something frankly mythic about it. I was walking down the same street where my grandmother and her siblings played and attended school. That’s incredible.
In an interview with CU Boulder Today, you expressed excitement about helping to lead CU Boulder “into a bold new future.” What does this mean to you?
I would start by saying a key aspect of the work that I want to do is sustaining the excellence that was already here to begin with. I want to continue the work that the former dean did around inclusive excellence, diversity, equity and inclusion. I also want to sustain and heighten many of our international connections while also encouraging students to embrace the local scene. Interview BY Kelsey Yandura. condensed and edited for clarity.
Interview condensed and edited for clarity.
Photo courtesy Lolita Buckner Inniss