Mark Killenbeck to Retire After 35 Years Teaching at the School of Law and Honors College

Mark R. Killenbeck at the Supreme Court.
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Mark R. Killenbeck at the Supreme Court.

When Mark R. Killenbeck retired at the end of July, he moved a portion of his research library home: 72 boxes of books that accumulated over a 35-year career teaching at the U of A School of Law. He donated the rest of his collection to the School of Law.

"I know that I am jousting against the wind in this digital age," he admitted. "But there is no substitute for carefully reading and learning from a good book, printed and bound and held in your hands."

As the Wylie H. Davis Distinguished Professor of Law, Killenbeck taught constitutional law, the First Amendment, American constitutional history and a variety of undergraduate seminars and forums at the Honors College. As a professor, he was formidable in his pursuit of the truth and encouraged students to reject myths and misconceptions about the American legal system. His teaching style was direct and aimed at inspiring his classes to think through the "wider context" of law — to formulate their own opinions, not just accept the summaries found in study aids and the pontifications of pundits.

"I want my students to to think and read carefully," Killenbeck shared. "I tell my students, don't you ever say a thing about a Supreme Court case unless you've actually read it."

THE POETRY OF FEDERAL STATUTES

Killenbeck was the first faculty member to be elected to the American Law Institute while at the U of A School of Law and is now a life member of that exclusive organization. But he almost didn't pursue a career in law — he started out as an English major at the University of Kansas.

"I nearly wrote a dissertation on the influence of Kabbalah in the poetry of Edmund Spenser," he laughed. "I still have a box full of my research notes."

Instead, he took a job at the University of Kansas Medical Center analyzing federal statutes, regulations and Supreme Court cases. This intensified an already present interest in the courts, so he decided to pursue a dual Ph.D. and J.D. degree at the University of Nebraska.

At his home office, he still has a plastic Razorback hat given to him by the chancellor of the University of Nebraska Medical Center (who was relieved to be rid of it) when he announced he was leaving the Cornhusker State to teach constitutional law in Arkansas.

"Not many places were going to hire somebody from Nebraska to teach, much less teach constitutional law," Killenbeck said. "Arkansas did."

EXPERT COMMENTARY

Killenbeck proved over his three-decade career that Arkansas had made the right decision. He has been invited to speak at the Supreme Court three times. In May 2012, he delivered a Leon Silverman Lecture, "A Prudent Regard to Our Own Good? The Commerce Clause, in Nation and States." In October 2014, he provided the expert commentary and introduction for a Frank C. Jones Reenactment of the oral argument in McCulloch v. Maryland. In October 2019, he delivered a second Leon Silverman Lecture on notable concurring opinions that effectively served as dissents.

His assessment of the Supreme Court's 2003 affirmative action decisions, "Affirmative Action and Diversity: The Beginning of the End? Or the End of the Beginning?," was published by the Educational Testing Service, which printed and distributed over 10,000 copies of it in their Policy Information Perspective series. His work has also appeared in The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions, the Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court of the United States, Social Consciousness in Legal Decision Making: Psychological Perspectives and many of the top legal journals in the nation.

"Over the course of his career, Mark sustained exceptional contributions to the legal academy and profession and raised the profile of the School of Law and the university," said Cynthia Nance, dean of the School of Law. "On a personal note, I will miss my frequent interactions with Mark, especially his quick wit, sharp insights and irreverent sense of humor."

THE HONORS EXPERIENCE

At the Honors College, Killenbeck taught Signature Seminars on the Supreme Court and the Separation of Church and State. He also dived into Affirmative Action this past spring in a Retro Readings Course and even joined the Honors Arkansas staff in untangling the contemporary controversy of privacy in an Honors Arkansas forum for honors students across the state.

"One of the absolute best teaching experiences I've had at the University of Arkansas has been working with the Honors College students," Killenbeck said. "They are uniformly talented and engaged."

During his seminar on the Supreme Court, Killenbeck shared the importance of paying attention to the exact language of the text and the location of each provision. He showed the class that the phrase "privileges and immunities" appears in both Article IV and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, but the terms mean wildly different things given their context and location. 

"Students have to understand the importance of paying attention to language," Killenbeck argued. "It's tedious and sometimes difficult work. It's something students have never seen before unless they run into a cantankerous kook like me."

The Honors College named Killenbeck the recipient of the Distinguished Research and Teaching Faculty Award in 2022.

"Killenbeck's ability to reach into legal complexities and pull out tantalizing tidbits for ambitious honors scholars to chew on has been transformative for this college," said Lynda Coon, dean of the Honors College. "In addition to dazzling in the classroom, he has mentored undergraduates through the process of taking the LSAT and applying to law school, with brilliant results."

Killenbeck made a prodigious impact on campus, not just in his work and reputation, but his lasting influence on the students who left his class with an understanding of the role of the Constitution in this country and a willingness to interpret and apply it for the common good. In particular, he challenged them to separate what he characterizes as "myths" from "realities" in a system where the "grand cases that get public attention are relatively few, and much of the 'hard lifting' is done by the Commerce Clause, rather than the various due processes and equal protection guarantees."

"If it works properly, good," Killenbeck shared his advice to students. "If it doesn't, 'We the People' need to do a better job." 

About the University of Arkansas School of Law: The law school offers a competitive J.D. and is home to the nation's first LL.M. program in agriculture and food law. Led by nationally recognized faculty, the school offers students pro bono work, live client clinics, public service fellowships, competitions, and much more. Students also benefit from our location in one of the fastest growing, most livable, and economically vibrant regions in the U.S., and from our corporate externship partnerships with Fortune 500 companies. Our alumni have gone on to become judges, senators, and governors, and we serve communities throughout our state and nation through programs such as the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative. Our longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion is exemplified by the Six Pioneers, the first Black students to attend law school in the South. Follow us at @uarklaw.

About the Honors College: The University of Arkansas Honors College was established in 2002 and brings together high-achieving undergraduate students and the university's top professors to share transformative learning experiences. Each year the Honors College awards up to 90 freshman fellowships that provide $80,000 over four years, and more than $1 million in undergraduate research and study abroad grants. The Honors College is nationally recognized for the high caliber of students it admits and graduates. Honors students enjoy small, in-depth classes, and programs are offered in all disciplines, tailored to students' academic interests, with interdisciplinary collaborations encouraged. All Honors College graduates have engaged in mentored research.

About the University of Arkansas: As Arkansas' flagship institution, the U of A provides an internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to Arkansas' economy through the teaching of new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and job development, discovery through research and creative activity while also providing training for professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the U of A among the few U.S. colleges and universities with the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the U of A among the top public universities in the nation. See how the U of A works to build a better world at Arkansas Research and Economic Development News.

Contacts

Shelby Gill, director of communications
Honors College
479-575-2024, segill@uark.edu

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