UA Community Mourns Death of Law School Dean

FAYETTEVILLE -- The University of Arkansas community was deeply saddened to learn Thursday morning of the passing of Law School Dean Richard B. Atkinson.

Atkinson, 58, passed away unexpectedly while attending the annual American Bar Association meeting in Chicago.

“Dick Atkinson’s leadership has given a very important part of the university a renewed vitality, building morale and feelings of goodwill among students and staff,” said Chancellor John A. White.

 “In the two and a half years of his deanship, he has accomplished a great deal in fund raising, planning for new facilities, and encouragement of student and faculty achievement and diversity. This is a tremendous loss to the Law School and the university as well as the state of Arkansas. Dick has demonstrated a quiet, persuasive strength in administration and leadership. He enjoys the respect and admiration of colleagues in the school and among the state's law community. It is difficult to express the grief Mary Lib and I feel.”

Provost Bob Smith described Atkinson as “personally compassionate, and a thoughtful, caring leader.”

“His faculty and staff feel a great deal of affection and appreciation for him,” Smith said. “This is a huge loss for us all, but especially for his people. They have a great sense of pride about the Law School and its accomplishments under his guidance.”

"I had the very great privilege of working closely with Dean Richard Atkinson over the past two and one half years, and had nothing but respect and admiration for him," said Carol Goforth, associate dean of academic affairs at the Law School

"While it is true that he was the best dean that I have ever worked with, his untimely death will be felt far beyond the Law School because he was also one of the warmest, kindest human beings I have known. His loss will be felt keenly, both within the Law School and by all of those who knew him."

Atkinson was the 10th dean at the University of Arkansas School of Law and began his two-and-a-half-year term Jan. 6, 2003. His appointment was to end last January, but he was persuaded to continue in the role to see through the recently begun building addition.

Atkinson joined the law school faculty in 1975 and served as interim dean for the 1990-91 academic year.

Atkinson received his Bachelor of Arts from Duke University in 1966, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. In 1971, he received a master's degree in divinity from Yale University, and received a Juris Doctorate from Yale in 1974. He was admitted to practice in Georgia, became an associate with the law firm of King and Spalding in Atlanta and has been a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina, Emory University and Georgia State University.

Atkinson has been one of two faculty members selected by the graduate class to participate in the hooding ceremony at commencement virtually every year since its inception in the early 1990s. He was chair of the Faculty Appointments Committee, gave bar review lectures around the nation and also received state-committee appointments by the governor of Arkansas, including serving a stint as chair of the Workers’ Compensation Reform Commission. Atkinson’s primary teaching and research interests were in the areas of property, real estate transactions, and wills and trusts. He often said, “Against the advice of many of my friends I continue to teach. Teaching is too much fun for me to give up entirely.”

One of Atkinson’s colleagues, Bob Laurence, the Robert A. Leflar distinguished professor of law, wrote a peer review of Atkinson not long before he became dean and described him: “He is one of the best teachers in the law school, and has won the Professor of the Year Award so regularly as to make the claim to being the best teacher. His service to the institution, as well, is extraordinary, and here I do not just mean his formal committee work. He is, himself, an exemplar of 'community life.’ And he is one of the faculty members most fondly remembered by alums. As the years go by and his tenure lengthens here, I suspect that for many of our graduates, he is the University of Arkansas School of Law.”

Under Atkinson’s leadership, the School of Law was included among the "most diverse law schools in the country" by the 2006 U.S. News and World Report's “America's Best Graduate Schools.” According to the report, African-American students comprise the School of Law's largest minority, making up 14 percent of the student body. The School of Law also ranked No. 12 in the specialized category of "Legal Writing."

In 2004, The National Jurist magazine ranked the School of Law among a select group of public law schools it regarded as a “Very Good Value.” National Jurist also reported that the School of Law ranked 13th out of 172 in the nation in success in improving gender and ethic diversity over the 10-year period from 1993-2003.

Long-committed to improving health care in the community, Atkinson was a member of the board of directors of Washington Regional Medical Center since 1980. Over the years, he has been chairman of the board three times. Atkinson was also a founding board member of the Northwest Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute (NARTI).

At the time of his appointment as dean, Judy S. Henry, a 1984 graduate of the law school and partner at Wright, Lindsey & Jennings L.L.P. in Little Rock, said: "The university is to be commended for selecting professor Richard Atkinson to lead the law school as dean for the next two-and-a-half years. The law school faculty and students will prosper under his leadership just as thousands of law students have benefited for many years from his dedication to superior teaching."

Atkinson is survived by his partner Dr. Michael G. Hollomon, director of psychiatric services at Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, as well as two brothers.

Details and arrangements for services are not known at this time but will be announced when they become available.

Effective immediately, the associate dean for academic affairs, Carol Goforth, will serve as acting dean of the School of Law, Provost Smith said. In coming weeks, a committee will be formed to select an interim dean, who will serve until a permanent dean can be named. A national search process will begin sometime in the coming months.

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