'Teaching law...it doesn’t get any better than that’
New Dean of USC School of Law
Eagerly Prepares to Tackle Challenges
December 28, 2003
Burnele Powell loves the law.
He talks about it in ways other people talk about religion, espousing its almost magical quality to distill complex intellectual conundrums into justice.
“I just love what the law stands for,” he said. “And teaching law gives you the opportunity to learn and transmit that to the next generation. ... It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Powell, 56, was named the dean of USC’s School of Law this month. He takes the reins at a critical time for the school, which has struggled to raise money and faces competition from a soon-to-open private law school in Charleston.
In Powell, now a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, USC gets a nationally recognized ethics expert. USC also becomes one of only a handful of law schools headed by an African-American.
Powell’s supporters say USC gets even more — a man with the kind of genuine zeal that can make great things happen.
“He’s not afraid to use a grandiose phrase because he actually believes in things,” said Patrick Randolph, a law professor at UMKC who has worked with Powell for nearly a decade.
“A lot of people in leadership are pragmatic, almost cynical. Not Burnele Powell. He believes that people who think hard and write well can change the way society is formed.”
DRAWN TO THE LAW AT AN EARLY AGE
Powell is a native of Kansas City, Mo., but was born across the border in Kansas because his mother didn’t want to give birth in a segregated hospital.
He grew up with five siblings, including a twin brother, in a working class neighborhood of Kansas City.
While opportunities for blacks in his hometown weren’t plentiful, Powell says his family rarely considered that an obstacle.
His father, Lorenzo Powell, was a pioneer among Kansas City’s black businessmen, working simultaneously as a tailor, barber and pool hall proprietor.
“He was very much involved in the community and he helped shape my vision of what a publicly spirited person ought to be,” Powell said.
The desire to pursue a career in law struck Powell early, when he was only 9 years old.
“Adlai Stevenson was running for president and I saw him give a speech,” he said. “I asked my mother what he did and she said he was a lawyer. I said ‘I’d like to do that, too.’”
Stevenson, a Democrat who was Illinois’ governor, lost to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956.
Although there were few black lawyers in the country at that time, Powell says he didn’t consider the odds. He says his father, who died in 1957, taught him that he could achieve anything.
“I thought he stood 8 feet tall, which is one of the things that happens when you lose your father at a young age,” he said. “He was literally a giant to me in many ways.”
Powell went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from UMKC, a law degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1973 and a master’s of laws from Harvard University in 1979.
While in Boston, he married his wife Brenda, a student at Brandeis University. They have two children, son Bradley, 21, and daughter, Berkeley, 18.
Powell’s held various teaching and professional posts through the years, including associate law school dean at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and dean at UMKC.
Coming back to Kansas City to teach and reunite with his siblings, who still live in the area, has been special for Powell.
His family had been rocked by tragedy when his twin brother Bernard, a prominent local civil rights activist, was gunned down in 1979 at the age of 32. A bronze statue of Bernard now stands near the Powells’ childhood home, in Kansas City’s Spring Valley Park.
“I think about him a lot,” Powell said. “It’s something I haven’t gotten over, and don’t expect to ever get over it.”
Powell says his departure for Columbia will be “poignant and bittersweet.”
“The saying that you can’t go home again is true,” he said. “But you can go back to the vicinity and feel some of the warmth you’ve left.”
‘MOVE THE LAW SCHOOL FORWARD’
Powell, who starts at USC in early January, won’t have much time to reflect on the past once he gets to Columbia.
USC’s law school has been without a dean for more than two years and many alumni will demand big things from Powell, including intensive fund raising for a new $55 million law school building.
William Hubbard, a member of USC’s Board of Trustees and head of the dean search committee, said he believes Powell will get lots of support from the state’s lawyers and judiciary.
“We feel he has the qualities to capture the imagination of lawyers in this state and move the law school forward over time,” Hubbard said.
Powell’s selection already has earned accolades from many of USC’s law school faculty members and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal.
Columbia attorney I.S. Leevy Johnson, also a member of the search committee, said Powell’s status as one of only a few black law school leaders nationally is important and could help in fund-raising efforts.
“I had a keen interest in trying to persuade decision makers to give an eminently qualified African-American an opportunity to provide leadership,” Johnson said. “He’s going to face difficulties, but he’ll have instant identification that will open up doors to him.”
If Powell’s intimidated by the intense gaze the state’s legal community will cast on him, he doesn’t let on.
The self-described workaholic and “news junkie” has found a way to relieve life’s stress through aikido karate, which he and his wife have practiced for years. He said finding a new place to practice martial arts will be one of his first priorities.
For Powell, leading USC’s law school is a continuation of his lifelong creed.
“When our mother dropped us off at school she would say, ‘Remember, your father always wanted you to be a leader.’ I believe you have an obligation to stand for something in life, to find something and do it well.”