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Keeping an open mind

Catherine Smith teaches, practices, speaks and acts for civil rights.

Catherine Smith ’91, professor and dean of institutional diversity and inclusiveness at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, has racked up the frequent flyer miles during the past year. 

In Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court’s decision recognizing the right to same-sex marriage, the majority opinion cited an amicus brief that Smith co-authored on the constitutional rights of children of same-sex parents. Smith has traveled extensively discussing the brief and its impact — from Columbia University in New York and American University in Washington, D.C., to the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston and Duke Law School in Durham, N.C., Smith also has traveled the country as a visiting lecturer and conference speaker, most recently as a presenter at the 2016 Critical Race Theory Conference at Yale University.

Now she’s off to France, where she and her daughter, Zoe, will co-present on a panel at American University in Paris at the International James Baldwin Conference 2016. 

“She’s 11 years old. I’m 47. We’re going to talk about intergenerational tensions and distinctions in the way we each see race and discrimination,” says Smith. “I’m writing a letter to her, then she’ll respond to me with another letter or a poem. It’s inspired by the letter Baldwin wrote to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation.”

Although Smith always wanted to be an attorney, she never expected to find herself in the classroom preparing the next generation of lawyers or traveling the world advocating for the rights of children, civil rights or inclusiveness.

“I just kept an open mind about possibilities,” she says. “Being a law professor has given me a lot of flexibility and a platform to have multiple careers. I have time periods when I’m focused on administrative stuff, then on writing, then on teaching. It’s also fun to file some briefs along the way.”

For her work, the American Association of Law Schools Minority Groups Section recently recognized Smith with the 2016 Clyde Ferguson Award. The award honors an outstanding law teacher who has achieved excellence in the area of public service, teaching and scholarship. She teaches torts, employment discrimination, sexuality, gender and the law, and family law. Her research interests include civil rights law and critical race theory.

“To win the Clyde Ferguson Award is mind blowing,” says Smith. “This is an amazing, hardworking and dedicated group, and I respect everyone in it so much. I’m honored to be one of them.”

Smith also is honored to follow in the footsteps of her father, Maj. Byrd Smith, who was an assistant professor of military science at Wofford during the 1970s. Teaching and service are in the family tree.

by Jo Ann Mitchell Brasington ’89

Summer 2016