Law professor. Feminist legal scholar. Author. Next stop on Dr. Lolita Buckner Inniss’ journey through the ranks of academia: CU Boulder. We explore the past, present and future of the first Black Colorado Law dean and just the second woman to hold this
high-ranking leadership role at the university.
Photography by Lacy Elam
What is a woman to do—specifically, a Black woman—when she wants to take a career path that few women have taken before her? She blazes the way, that’s what she does. When Dr. Lolita Buckner Inniss first saw the job opening for Colorado Law dean, her initial reaction was: I can’t be a dean. They won’t choose me. Then, her inner drive took over. “I thought, ‘I owe it to myself to read the description and take another look at the school.’”
In the past several years, a record number of Black women have become law school deans in the U.S., though that number is still less than 30—only about 14 percent of all law school deans. Nonetheless, this year, Lolita Buckner Inniss, J.D., LL.M., Ph.D., joined their ranks as the new dean of Colorado Law. “I’m ecstatic and thrilled for this opportunity,” she says. “For years, I’ve seen myself as someone very capable in this role, but until recently, I wouldn’t have considered applying, because there were few examples of Black women succeeding in this type of position.
“That’s the sobering part,” she adds, “the idea that even in the twenty-first century, this counts as a novel attainment.”
A Cap with a Bevy of Brilliant Feathers
Growing up in Los Angeles, Inniss was—as one might expect from her 12-page CV—insufferably curious. She recalls that after every “what, why, how” tirade, her mother would advise her to find a book, sit down, and read about it.
“One of the things both my parents’ families had in common was that they were smart, ambitious, creative, but also, largely poor and working-class,” Inniss says. “I had a childhood that was full of ups and downs, mostly because of economic status; I also, fortunately, had a mom who helped me to dream big.” And so, the roots of a legal scholar slowly took purchase.
After graduating from Princeton University, Inniss was torn between following her passion—she’s a self-described Francophile—and her desire to be a “justice warrior.” “I chose law school because it seemed better paid than a French professor,” she says. She has gone on to dedicate her life’s work to such causes as comparative law; critical race theory; gender, race, and property law; and feminist legal theory.
After law school, she went into private practice, and although she enjoyed the work, Inniss found herself pulled toward the academic side of law. A part-time legal writing instructor position was the concrete that solidified her life’s path. This eventually led to a full-time position as a law professor. And yet, it still wasn’t enough. “It didn’t lend itself to writing,” says Inniss. “There really wasn’t space to do the scholarly work I loved.” So, she set out to earn a tenure-track position. With drive and determination, Inniss soon reached her goal.
Was she content? Absolutely. Was she satisfied? Not yet.
In her early forties, Inniss took time out as a tenured professor and set out to York University in Toronto to pursue her Ph.D. “This was more about self-fulfillment and wanting that deep intellectual engagement,” she says. “Now, fast forward and here I am, not only a professor but the dean of a law school.”
Service Equals Success
Inniss attributes her success, at least in part, to her consistent level of service. “For many of us, as Black women, it wasn’t always a choice, often being thrust into roles that, in terms of where we were in our career, were probably premature. To achieve tenure, we had to go above and beyond while still excelling in teaching and scholarship.”
Over the course of her career and studies, she dedicated herself to the often obscure and difficult committee work that was ultimately the experience she needed, and it paid off in spades. The list of service roles is extensive. Inniss served as a legal resource team member and an observer for the Lawyers’ Committee for Rights, and she is a life member and past president of the Association of Black Princeton Alumni. She has also provided service to the American Bar Association/United Nations Development Program as well as the Institute of Feminist Legal Studies and more. “When I took my last position as senior associate dean at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, I realized I’d been doing the job for over ten years, just not with the label.”
Of her new position, Inniss is candid: “Without a doubt, dean will be a tremendous challenge but, fortunately, it encompasses much of the work I’ve been privileged to do over the last several years of my career.”
A Few Articles and Essays by Dr. Inniss
“Slavery and the Postbellum University”
“While the Water is Stirring’: Sojourner Truth as Proto-agonist in the Fight for (Black) Women’s Rights”
100 Boston University Law Rev. 1637 (invited author, 2020)
“Race, Space and Surveillance: A Response to ‘#LivingWhileBlack: Blackness as Nuisance’”
by Taja-Nia Henderson and Jamila Jefferson-Jones, American University Law Review F. 213 (invited author, 2020)
“Princeton’s Removal of President Wilson’s Name Should be Just the Beginning”
Op-ed, New Jersey Star Ledger, Trenton Times, and other national international news outlets July 12, 2020
Rated as one of the tougher schools to get into (per The Princeton Review), Colorado Law has a 35% acceptance rate.
Fall 2020 Entering Class Profile
185 First-Year Students
49% Female Students
36% Students of Color
72% Students from Outside Colorado
116 Colleges and Universities Represented
39 States Represented
25 Average Age of Students
* Taken from the University of Colorado Law School website.