University of Virginia School of Law professor Kimberly Jenkins Robinson, an education law expert known for empowering her students, has been named a recipient of one of this year’s All-University Teaching Awards.
Robinson, a former education policy lawyer at the Department of Education, has been a member of the Law School faculty since 2019, after teaching at two other law schools.
The graduate of UVA and Harvard Law School said she feels teaching is her “calling.” From the moment she became a professor of law, she took it upon herself to make her students and her teaching skills a priority, attending sessions on pedagogy at conferences and reading about best practices in teaching.
“We’re not trained to teach — we are subject matter experts,” Robinson said. “I teach education law and policy, and believe that it’s my responsibility to make sure they’re with me and they’re understanding the multilayered analysis we’re doing. It’s not just making sure we analyze what the case says, but the rationale, what wasn’t said and the assumptions and research underneath what the court is saying.”
Robinson said she respects teaching and the transmission of knowledge as “a science” and works hard to create an inclusive classroom that draws in all students, including those who are reluctant to voice their opinions and raise questions.
That collaborative and inclusive approach to teaching has set Robinson apart in the minds of her students, and several cite her as the reason they chose to attend law school at the University of Virginia.
“Not only did she communicate material effectively, but she had the highest expectations for her students while giving us the tools necessary to succeed,” Spencer Haydary ’23 said. “When it was time to write first drafts for her class, she gave each of us individualized feedback and grew my writing more than any professor I have had.”
The value of a quality education was imprinted on Robinson as a child, when her parents moved to Virginia so she and her brother could attend better public schools. Her research, writing and teaching focus on establishing a high-quality education as a federal civil right, so it does not depend upon one’s state of residency. Her parents, who passed away in 2020 and 2011, left her a civil rights mantle to carry forward.
Her father, Wilbur H. Jenkins Jr., was a civil rights lawyer with the federal government — including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — and coached the groundbreaking tennis champion and humanitarian Arthur Ashe. Her mother, Doris Sroufe Jenkins, a registered nurse, attended the 1963 March on Washington and once filed a Fair Housing complaint when she was told — falsely — that an apartment was not available to rent.
“They’re definitely the reason I am who I am,” Robinson said. “They impressed upon me the importance of education, serving others and always striving for excellence.”
A focus on education runs in the family in more ways than one for Robinson. Her husband, Gerard Robinson, also teaches education policy at the Law School and is the former Virginia secretary of education.
“We have a complementary interest in education, which is fun,” she said. “Without a husband who has nurtured and supported my career and our family at every step, I would be struggling to get it all done. I am truly indebted to him for his unwavering support.”
Some of Robinson’s scholarship critiques San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, a 1973 Supreme Court decision. The court ruled that a Texas public education financing scheme, which disadvantaged poorer districts with smaller property tax bases, did not violate the Constitution’s equal protection clause because the court decided that the Constitution doesn’t guarantee a right to an education.
Robinson is the editor of the book “A Federal Right to Education: Fundamental Questions for Our Democracy” and co-editor, with Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree Jr., of “The Enduring Legacy of Rodriguez: Creating New Pathways to Equal Educational Opportunity.” Her forthcoming book, “The United States of Education: How the Federal Government Can Work with States to Fix Our Struggling Schools,” will be published by the Harvard University Press.
As Dean Risa Goluboff noted in her letter nominating Robinson for the award, her courses cover difficult ground and they involve “deeply troubling themes about racism, discrimination and persistent inequalities in basic structures of our social life.”
“Students approach these subjects with very different life experiences and opinions,” Goluboff wrote.
Goluboff said Robinson manages these themes and diverse viewpoints with “extraordinary skill” and her classroom management style and demeanor allow even normally reticent students to engage. Goluboff also noted that “Professor Robinson’s teaching and dedication to her students extend far beyond the classroom. She evinces a constant and heartfelt concern for all of our students, whether they take her classes or not.”
Robinson sets high expectations for her students, consistently pushing them to consider multiple angles and to articulate how they would improve a law, case or policy they are critiquing.
Chris Yarrell ’22 said in his nomination letter that he chose to attend UVA Law to learn from Robinson, whose scholarship he had long admired. She agreed to meet with him as soon as he arrived on North Grounds — a full semester before he would be able to register for any of her classes.
Ultimately, he took every class she taught during his time at UVA. He praised her Law, Inequality and Reform course, where students step into the role of reformer to write a substantial research paper critiquing laws and policies that engender educational inequality and proposing their own legal recommendations.
In that class, students were responsible for providing feedback to peers, and Robinson offered extensive guidance throughout the process. Ultimately, Yarrell said, his paper won first prize in a national writing competition sponsored by the Education Law Association and he was hired shortly thereafter as a staff attorney at the Center for Law and Education in Boston.
Robinson said she consistently invests in her students inside and outside of the classroom and challenges them to become the people who implement the changes they propose.
“One of the reasons I love teaching at UVA is that I know these students are going to go out and do great things,” Robinson said. “I want to impact their thinking when they’re doing those great things; I want to shape them to understand and engage the world and the law a little bit differently because they were in my class.”
Past UVA Law faculty recipients of the teaching award are Rachel Harmon (2021-22), Michael Gilbert (2019-20), George S. Geis (2018-19), Leslie Kendrick ’06 (2016-17), Toby Heytens ’00 (2015-16), Gregory Mitchell (2013-14), Michael Collins (2012-13), Goluboff (2010-11), Jim Ryan ’92 (2009-10), Caleb Nelson (2007-08), Rip Verkerke (2006-07), John C. Harrison (2004-05), Barry Cushman (2002-03, Law and History), Kenneth S. Abraham (1999-2000), Anne M. Coughlin (1998-99), Paul G. Mahoney (1997-98), Michael J. Klarman (1996-97) and Pamela S. Karlan (1995-96).
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.