Mark C. Jefferson has been named the inaugural assistant dean for diversity, equity and belonging at the University of Virginia School of Law. He begins his role March 29.

Jefferson is currently assistant dean of community engagement and equity at Harvard Law School, and joined the school in a director role in 2017. Before that, he was assistant director of admissions at the University of Michigan Law School, where he earned his J.D.

The assistant dean for diversity, equity and belonging is a newly created position reporting directly to the dean. As the chief diversity officer of the Law School, the assistant dean will be responsible for strengthening and advancing the Law School’s commitment to being a diverse and equitable institution in which every member — including students, faculty and staff — feels an equal sense of belonging.

“I take very seriously the work of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Jefferson said. “Part of the desired outcome, especially for those of us who sit in marginalized identities, is to be able to show up as our whole selves and belong, and to not have to defend or explain what it means to be me in the world — and that diversity, equity and inclusion work is one of the ways in which we attempt to achieve that goal.”

Jefferson, who is originally from Washington, D.C., earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy from Morehouse College and completed additional graduate course work at the Boston University School of Theology, where he also served as a chaplain at the school’s Marsh Chapel.

“One of the things I’ve known for a long time is that you never really know what’s going on with another human being,” he said of his religious service. “People can present great when everything is falling apart. It encourages you to be a little more generous with the next human being, to the extent to which we’ve all gone through difficulties in our lives.”

Before law school, he also worked as a middle school teacher, serving as the founding dean of students and a language arts teacher at the Seed Public Charter School in Washington and as director of alumni support at St. Ignatius Loyola Academy in Baltimore. After a year working for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, he decided to become a lawyer himself.

He was an associate at the law firm Thelen in New York before returning to Michigan to serve in the school’s admissions office.

“UVA was easily the hardest law school to recruit against,” he said of his time at Michigan. “Both law schools pride themselves on a sense of community and collegiality, and academic rigor. … There’s just an intense sense of belonging and loyalty at both schools.”

He said he also is happy to be closer to D.C., where friends and family live, including his mother, who lives in Front Royal, Virginia.

Recent events — the Black Lives Matter protests, the presidential election, the pandemic — have brought issues relating to diversity and equity to the forefront for law students across the nation, and Jefferson said he is comfortable helping students through difficult times.

“The biggest lesson that I have learned is to just listen — to listen and to try to understand what any given part of the community needs and feels,” he said.

Jefferson, who is both a writer and avid reader in his spare time, pointed to a line from James Baldwin’s book “The Fire Next Time” about there being “almost no language” for the horrific experiences of African Americans.

“We’re actually trying to figure out the language to talk about the thing that we don’t know how to talk about,” he said. “And that is the work. There are no shortcuts.”

Jefferson added that it is likewise important to understand that people are unique individuals outside of how they appear.

“Would you know from talking to me, or meeting my parents, that my father’s sole goal in life, being born in Thurman, West Virginia, a coal mining town of less than 300, was not to be a coal miner? … Or that, if my mother could live another life, she would be a NASCAR driver?” he said.

In his new role, Jefferson will chair the Law School’s Committee on Diversity, Equity and Belonging, and collaborate with the admissions, graduate studies and financial aid offices on student recruitment and success, and the development of pipeline programs for underrepresented students to law school. He will also engage directly with prospective and current students, including mentoring students and working with student affinity groups.

Jefferson will serve as a resource for faculty and staff to enrich diversity, equity and belonging efforts in hiring and retention, the curriculum, classrooms, clinics, experiential courses and programs, among other aims, Dean Risa Goluboff said.

“This is such a critical position for the Law School. It will enable us to expand the work we have been doing to enhance diversity, equity and belonging in our community and our profession,” Goluboff said. “Mark brings extensive expertise and enormous talents to the role, and I am overjoyed that he is joining us. I am excited for all that he will help us accomplish.”

Students, faculty and staff participated in interviewing candidates for the new role, with the search led by Professor Kimberly Jenkins Robinson.

“Mark will bring numerous strengths to our community and these strengths made him a standout in a highly competitive field of candidates,” Robinson said.

She pointed to his track record as a law school administrator.

“He achieved great success at Harvard Law School in building community among students from all backgrounds and is highly regarded by students, faculty and staff alike,” she said. “He understands the array of challenges and opportunities surrounding diversity, equity and belonging. Mark will bring his experience and insights to bolster UVA Law on these issues as he works with students, faculty, staff and alumni, and facilitates UVA Law’s connections across Grounds.”

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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