Health Law Expert Dayna Matthew '87 to Return to UVA Law Faculty

Alum and Author of 'Just Medicine' Says She's Glad to Be Coming 'Home'
Dayna Matthew

Trained at UVA Law, Dayna Matthew '87 has become a leader in the discussion of how to protect vulnerable communities from inequities that have negative health consequences.

June 15, 2017

Health law expert Dayna Matthew, a 1987 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and former assistant professor here, will return to UVA Law as a full professor, starting in the fall.

"Every day I pinch myself, I'm so glad to be coming back home," said Matthew, who will be the William L. Matheson and Robert M. Morgenthau Distinguished Professor of Law.

A seasoned academic, Matthew joins the faculty from the University of Colorado School of Law, where she began in 2003 as an associate professor. She earned full professorship in 2005. Since then, she has served that school in several leadership roles, including as associate dean of academic affairs in 2004 and, from 2010-11, as vice dean.

She started her teaching career as an assistant professor at UVA Law, from 1991-94. She has also taught law at the University of Kentucky.

In addition to her J.D., she holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Harvard-Radcliffe College.

At UVA, Matthew will teach several fall and spring courses in health law, as well as first-year constitutional law.

"I will be teaching a lot, in order to better know my students, my colleagues and my home institution," she said.

Matthew has been a leader in public health. She is co-founder of the Colorado Health Equity Project and the author of the well-received book "Just Medicine: A Cure for Racial Inequality in American Health Care," which looks at how implicit bias affects health outcomes.

Since the book's publication in 2015, she said, she has had numerous speaking engagement requests from physicians' groups, insurers and "social determinant" groups — those in a position to influence public health.

"That has been a really pleasant surprise," she said. "I thought I was talking to law professors and lawyers. The book has outpaced me."

The Colorado Health Equity Project, which Matthew began with help from a Colorado law firm partner in 2013, is a medical-legal partnership whose mission is to remove barriers to good health for low-income clients. The project pairs law, medical and public health students with established attorneys to provide direct legal representation to the community.

"The paradigmatic example I always give is the asthma patient who lived in a moldy, uninhabitable apartment," she said. "Going to the doctor and getting medical treatment for asthma is only as effective as the environment in which that person, that child, lives. So unless we have a partnership between the legal and the medical solutions, that kid is not going to get better."

The project will continue, she said, thanks to funding from the Denver Foundation and Centura Health Systems. The money will subsidize a fellowship to fill her vacancy.

At Colorado, Matthew was a member of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities on the Anschutz Medical Campus and held a joint appointment at the Colorado School of Public Health. She will have a similar arrangement with the School of Medicine at UVA.

Matthew also has considerable experience in administrative law. Among her numerous public service roles, in 2015 she served as the senior adviser to the director of the Office of Civil Rights for the Environmental Protection Agency. Her job was to expedite cases on behalf of historically vulnerable communities besieged by pollution.

"The office was seriously backlogged," she said. "Cases filed were unresolved for more than two decades. Title VI was not being enforced by federal fund recipients, and as result, pollution was disproportionately affecting communities protected by the Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment."

She said although she held the EPA appointment for a relatively short period (about eight months), her work helped large populations of people and contributed to significant institutional improvements.

"We really affected major population groups in areas like Flint, Michigan in Genessee County, and my hometown of the South Bronx," she said. "We got lots of that docket cleared up, lots of new procedural changes implemented."

Following her work for the executive branch in the Obama administration, she became a member of the health policy team for U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and enjoyed the opportunity to work on public health issues within the legislative branch of federal government.

"It was just dumb luck that I started in November and was on her staff in January when the governor and the president declared a state of emergency due to the lead-water contamination problem in Flint," she said. "There again, I got to see the law and health intimately intertwined."

In addition to her public service in government, fellowships have helped expand Matthew's view of how to help large swaths of people.

As a 2015 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellow, which included residency in Washington, D.C., Matthew learned about ways to expand her reach through the media and by representing large groups facing mutual problems. She said the fellowship had a profound impact on her work with the Colorado Health Equity Project.

"I pivoted to population-level clients," she said.

Soon, the project was representing an entire Colorado community that had historically borne the brunt of industrial polluters, and was now facing a major highway expansion. Student lawyers with the project worked with the community, elected representatives and attorneys to advance measures to mitigate the highway expansion’s impact on health and safety.

Through the Johnson Foundation’s fellowship, Matthew also forged relationships with influential policy groups such as the Brookings Institution, where she is currently a nonresident fellow, and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

Before academia, Matthew practiced as a civil litigator for law firms, including in Virginia at McGuireWoods' Charlottesville office. There, her work focused primarily on the defense of medical care providers and corporate manufacturers. It gave her early insight into the intersection between law, medicine, and public health, and helped hone her teaching skills

"We defended some of the very finest physicians in the state of Virginia," she said. "The connection to law and health was pretty clear to me in that early part of my career. I tried something like seven or eight jury trials as first chair. I think I cut my teeth in the courtroom in terms of being able to teach, because good litigators teach juries."

She added, "Teaching law school classes is like talking to a jury who talks back."

While studying at Virginia, she served as an editor of the Virginia Law Review.  Those skills helped make her a Hardy Dillard Writing Fellow as well. Similarly, she combined writing and oration as part of a second-year team who won the Law School's Lile Moot Court Competition.

After graduation, Matthew clerked for Judge John Charles Thomas, a 1975 graduate of the Law School and the first African-American justice to sit on the Virginia Supreme Court.

One of the classes Matthew will be instructing at UVA is Public Health Law and Ethics, which for many years has been taught by Professor Richard Bonnie, the faculty's senior health law expert, along with Ruth Gaare Bernheim of the School of Medicine.

Bonnie said Matthew has already made substantial contributions as a mid-career academic, and will continue to do so at UVA.

“As Dayna’s former teacher, I am so excited that she is returning to the Law School,” Bonnie said. “She was a wonderful student and junior colleague and I have admired her accomplishments over the years since she left. She will be a tremendous asset to our health law program, not only in the Law School but also in the School of Medicine, where she will also have an appointment in the Department of Public Health Sciences. I look forward to working with her on a broad range of projects, especially in public health.”

Professor Barbara Armacost, a 1989 graduate of the Law School, met Matthew when they were both students. They became good friends and continued to follow each other’s progress in academia.

“We have kept in close touch,” Armacost said. “Dayna is a wonderful colleague. She is smart, enthusiastic, energetic and collaborative. She is also a generous, innovative and committed institutional player. In conversations with Dayna about the many tasks she took on at the University of Colorado Law School, I observed that her goal as a colleague is to look out for everyone’s interests. She is committed to making sure that all boats rise together. Dayna’s most recent work on bias in medical treatment has generated a lot of buzz and it promises to be very influential in the field. And she has very ambitious plans for future work. We are very, very lucky to have lured Dayna away from Colorado. She promises to be a very productive scholar and a wonderful colleague.”

Matthew said she is not only glad to be back at Virginia, but to be on faculty with so many familiar faces, including some of her mentors.

She recalled how current professors Mildred Robinson and John C. Jeffries Jr., as well as former professor Michael Dooley, took an active interest in her career possibilities, including foreseeing her potential as an academic. How to perform when applying for a teaching position was part of their preparation.

"They sat me down and said, 'Here's what a job talk is,'" she said. "I'm a kid from South Bronx, New York. I had no more idea what it meant to give a job talk than the man on the moon. But here are three of the nation's smartest minds mentoring, caring enough to spend their time with me. Literally John Jeffries sat me down in his living room and mooted a job talk. I would have failed miserably — not because I was unable to do what was needed; the failing would have been my lack of familiarity with the process and not knowing what to expect."

A few years later, on her first day teaching, she continued to receive moral support.

"[Professor] Paul Mahoney saw me marching off to teach my very first class and called me into his office to offer words of support that made me relax and laugh,” she said.

Mahoney remembered the moment, too. “You don’t have to be able to outrun the bear; you just have to be able to outrun the campers,” he recalled telling her.

The pep talked worked. Examples like these made it easy for Matthew to decide to return to Virginia.

"I wanted to come back to that environment that changes people, changes lives, changes population problems," she said. "I wanted to come back to an environment that considers itself crucially important to improving society, and that's what Virginia means to me. I've taught at some very fine institutions — and teaching students is a high calling. But something extra exists at Virginia, where we educate to serve."

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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