Vice Provost and Professor Adrienne Davis received a Founders Day Distinguished Faculty Award on Saturday, November 5.


“Advice to students: Use this unique time and circumstance to find your role in this world. Find your passion and stick with it. If you follow your passion, you will always have work that you love.”

Adrienne Davis
William M. Van Cleve Professor of Law; Vice Provost of the University
Washington University School of Law

Justice for All: Vice Provost Davis Examines the Intersection of Race, Gender, and the Law

A voice for the often unheard, misunderstood, and disenfranchised, Vice Provost and Professor Adrienne Davis confronts racial, social, and gender inequality from an intellectual and compassionate perspective.

Driving Influences

“I’m a civil rights baby. I grew up in that turbulent, but hopeful, environment,” explains Vice Provost and Professor Adrienne Davis of her passion for progress in the continual search for social equality among races and genders. Finding the law’s place in this search is what Davis, the William M. Van Cleve Professor of Law, has spent her career enthusiastically pursuing.

Born in the turbulent 1960s to parents who were also passionate about and actively involved in social justice issues, Davis recalls that she absorbed and digested the changing world around her with a natural and heightened interest.

“I always wanted to be a lawyer,” Davis says, and indeed it was in law school at Yale University that Davis solidified her decision to pursue her study of race and gender. “Critical race theory was just emerging as a field. It was not taught in the curriculum,” Davis notes, “so some of my classmates and I started doing some initial work on the subject outside of the classroom. I found that work deeply stimulating and inspiring.”

As executive committee editor of The Yale Law Journal, Davis discovered her intellectual passion for academia, for which she says she “fell in love.” Following professorships at the University of San Francisco School of Law, American University’s Washington College of Law, and the University of North Carolina School of Law, she found a home in 2008 at Washington University as a member of the distinguished law faculty.

Current Scholarship

bkg_legal2Davis’ current scholarship and teaching are focused on gender and race relations, theories of justice and reparations, feminist legal theory, and law and popular culture. Among her scholarly endeavors, she is the founder and co-director of the Law, Identity, and Culture Initiative, along with Associate Professor Rebecca Wanzo, in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program in Arts & Sciences.

Through the initiative, Davis helps to facilitate scholarly engagement and exchange on the intersection of legal, cultural, and other interdisciplinary studies. In fall 2014, the initiative was one of the sponsors that brought Patricia Williams, the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University, to Washington University. Williams presented three lectures on identity and race, including one for the law school’s Public Interest Law & Policy Speakers Series.

Davis also served as co-director of the Black Sexual Economies Project for the Law School’s Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work & Social Capital. The project, which sought to craft new paradigms for thinking about race, gender, and sexuality through open dialogue and papers, culminated in a public conference. The edited collection stemming from that conference is forthcoming in a university press.

In her role as vice provost, Davis also oversaw Washington University’s Mosaic Project, along with the university’s vice chancellor for students. The project initiated a set of programs and working groups to transform the undergraduate student experience through a heightened commitment to strengthening diversity, fostering inclusion, and promoting social justice. The project resulted in an inaugural Center for Diversity & Inclusion, a Bias Report and Support System, and a suite of initiatives to support inclusive teaching, among other ongoing initiatives.

Transformative Work

ladyjustice-bookOne of Davis’ most passionate interests is the study of slavery. “My work has evolved into two veins,” Davis explains, “racial justice, especially in the historic context, and the system of slavery itself and how it enshrined racial power.”

Her scholarly interest in the topic dates back to Davis’s work in college and then after law school with the late Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., a prominent African-American jurist, civil rights advocate, and author. Higginbotham devoted much of his scholarship to the legal history of slavery and its consequences in the United States.

In her installation as the William M. Van Cleve Professor of Law in 2008 (Davis was the first African American female professor at Washington University to receive an endowed chair), she discussed her research on several cases from the era of U.S. slavery. During this period in U.S. history, the concepts of humanity and property were comingled.

The cases also provide an excellent learning tool for her students. “The unsettling process of examining these cases,” Davis says, “helps them confront a system that could only be incoherent given its corrupt underpinnings.

“This inquiry encourages students to develop and articulate their own perspectives on the rule of law – and its relationship to democracy, morality and their own sense of ethics and justice,” she observes.

Passion for justice and equality, for opening the doors of opportunity and access, for challenging injustice and finding the blessings in diversity: these are the fuels that light the fire in Davis’s heart. “We are living in a moment akin to the 1960s,” Davis says. “As a professor, right now, I’m asking, ‘What can my teaching do?’”

Her advice to students, and especially her law students, is to: “Use this unique time and circumstance to find your role in this world. Find your passion and stick with it. If you follow your passion,” she says, “you will always have work that you love.”