Michigan Law has named Dr. Mary Frances Berry, PhD ’66, JD ’70, HLLD ’97, as a recipient of the 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award, the Law School’s highest honor. Berry is one the nation’s leading activists for civil rights, gender equality, and social injustice.
Her extensive career spans four decades and includes leadership roles in both higher education and government service. “We all have a responsibility to try and do something to make the world a little better place than it was when we came into it,” Berry said during her visit to Ann Arbor to accept the award in September.
Berry came to Michigan not to study law but, rather, to study history, specifically that of slavery during the Civil War. It was during this pursuit that she took a course in legal and constitutional history with Professor William R. Leslie—the man who inspired Berry to attain her JD in addition to her PhD.
“He thought that people who taught legal history should have both degrees. He said, ‘If you are a lawyer and you don’t know history, you won’t be very good at it. If you know history and know nothing about the law, you won’t be very good at that either,’” said Berry. While she was a law student, Berry not only taught American history at Central Michigan University but also was a founder of the Black Law Students Association.
“I never imagined when I was a small child that I would ever be a lawyer or a person with a PhD or any of the things that people call accomplishments,” said Berry. “Being at Michigan was beyond my wildest dreams.”
Berry went on to become chancellor of the University of Colorado, making her the first black woman to head a major research university. She then became the principal education official of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, where she worked to improve access to and quality of K-12 education. She later served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission over four presidential administrations, including as chair under President Bill Clinton.
In 2013 she received the Nelson Mandela Award from the South African government for her role in organizing the Free South Africa Movement, which helped to end apartheid. Today, Berry teaches American legal history at the University of Pennsylvania. She also has authored 12 books on subjects ranging from the history of constitutional racism in America to child care and women’s rights.
“As a champion of civil rights and devoted civil servant, Mary embodies the high ideals of our Law School. She has dedicated her career to fighting for equality and challenging the status quo while also inspiring others to do the same. We are so proud to call her one of our own,” said Dean Mark West as he presented Berry with the Distinguished Alumni Award.
Theodore St. Antoine, ’54, the James E. & Sarah A. Degan Professor of Law Emeritus, introduced Berry during the ceremony in Aikens Commons.
“Of the 8,000 or so students I have had in my career, three stand out as persons whose exact seat in class I can remember. Sitting slightly to my left, maybe one or two rows back, was Mary Berry,” he recalled fondly. “When she spoke, let me tell you, it was in a quiet but firm and committed voice. The ideas were always provocative, unconventional, and inspiring. I came to the conclusion that she didn’t really come to law school to learn about the law, in the usual sense of the term. She came to use the law, and has she ever done that in her career.”