BY: Elise Hanks Billing | DATE: Jun 05, 2024

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author and Expert in Race and Class Dimensions of Schools, Police, and Prisons to Visit CUNY Law as Teacher and Mentor

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Professor James Forman Jr.

NEW YORK, NY — The City University of New York School of Law will welcome James Forman Jr., the J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale Law School and Faculty Director of the Yale Law and Racial Justice Center, as the 2024 W. Haywood Burns Chair in Human and Civil Rights.

Professor Forman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and expert in race and class dimensions of schools, police, and prisons, will visit CUNY Law for the 2024-25 academic year as a teacher, mentor, and thought leader. His teaching and public presentations will focus on advancing racial justice in higher education and the criminal legal system. This work will build upon his exploration of the foundations of racial exclusion in American education and consideration of new pathways for access to legal education, particularly following the Supreme Court’s curtailment of race-based affirmative action in college and graduate admissions. Professor Forman will also examine practical interventions to address the harms of mass incarceration, drawing from his forthcoming anthology, Dismantling Mass Incarceration: A Handbook for Change.

CUNY Law Dean Sudha Setty looks forward to building on the recent success of the Burns Chair with Forman’s arrival. “Our students, faculty, and alumni have an incredible opportunity through the Burns Chair—fresh perspectives and visionary leadership from experts passionate about human and civil rights brought right to our classrooms, conversations, and community. Professor Forman’s expertise on dismantling mass incarceration and expanding access to legal education directly align with our mission and the aspirations of our students and alumni,” says Dean Setty.

Professor Forman has developed innovative educational opportunities, such as Yale Law’s Access to Law School Program and the Maya Angelou School in Washington DC, to serve underserved youth and adults. In early 2022, under Professor Forman’s leadership, Yale Law School launched the Yale Law & Racial Justice Center, its first center dedicated to racial justice. The center brings together Yale’s faculty, staff, and students with New Haveners, local government officials, and national experts to develop and implement projects that advance racial justice.

“The collaborative effort of many CUNY Law stakeholders and allies throughout New York state has set the stage for the continued momentum and impact of the W. Haywood Burns Chair. A former public defender and preeminent authority on race, education, and the criminal legal system, Professor Forman’s breadth of experience and knowledge will deeply enrich the core commitments of the CUNY Law community,” shares Professor Nicole Smith Futrell, Faculty Director of the W. Haywood Burns Chair of Human and Civil Rights Program, head of the Center for Diversity in the Legal Profession, and Co-Director of the Defenders Clinic.


Honoring the Legacy of a Civil Rights Luminary

Says Jennifer Dohrn, Burns’s widow and a longtime ally of CUNY Law, “Haywood had the creative ability to bring the values of basic human rights, modeled from those who went before him, into the present. How wonderful to pass this torch from Vince Warren to James Forman Jr.  Our family celebrates James’s appointment, and we are confident he will make Haywood’s legacy alive and relevant in today’s struggle for equity and justice.”

The Burns Chair honors W. Haywood Burns, a people’s lawyer, professor, and civil rights activist dedicated to expanding access to legal education and representing people and communities underserved by the legal profession. Haywood was also a lawyer to social movements, as his work to help establish and lead the National Conference of Black Lawyers to represent the Black liberation movement exemplifies. Burns served as the second dean of CUNY Law from 1987 to 1994 and was the first Black dean of a law school in New York State; in that role, he helped bring to fruition a new model of legal education with the central purpose of training lawyers dedicated to the public good.

In 1996, after Burns lost his life in a car accident while participating in a conference on South Africa’s transition to multiracial democracy, the W. Haywood Burns Chair was first funded with donations from Burns’s family and friends and an allocation from the New York State Legislature. The state renewed financial support for the Burns Chair annually until 2011; that year, state funding was cut due to extraordinary fiscal constraints until its restoration in 2022 by the New York State Legislature and Governor Kathy Hochul.

With renewed support from the state, the Burns Chair and CUNY Law faculty and staff advance the mission Burns championed throughout his life: to teach, train, mentor, and inspire rising generations of people’s lawyers.


Support for the Burns Chair at CUNY Law

Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry introduced a state budget measure in 1996, establishing the Burns Chair at CUNY Law. In 2022 and again this year for inclusion in the FY 2025 State Budget, as Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore, he sponsored funding to reinstate the Burns Chair. “Haywood’s work on racial justice remains alive through the W. Haywood Burns Chair in Human and Civil Rights; it’s an initiative that will help CUNY Law attract, teach and mentor future legal professionals from under-represented racial and ethnic communities.”

New York State Senator Jamaal T. Bailey ’12 said, “As a proud alumnus, I’m excited to welcome James Forman, Jr. as the next Burns Chair. His highly-regarded insights on our criminal justice system and its disproportionate impact on communities of color, along with his dedication to underserved youth, will be an impactful addition to the CUNY Law community. Congratulations!”

Assembly Member Catalina Cruz ’09 said, “As a CUNY School of Law alum, I’m happy to support the W. Haywood Burns Chair and look forward to the inspiration James Forman, Jr. will provide both the CUNY Law community and current students as they begin their legal careers. Appointing James Forman, Jr. as the next Burns Chair exemplifies the mission of CUNY School of Law – to represent people whose needs are often underserved. I’m proud to support the Burns Chair and welcome adding the esteemed perspective of Professor Forman to the CUNY Law Community.”

Assembly Member Harvey Epstein ’94 said, “CUNY School of Law prides itself on serving the underserved and focusing on human and civil rights.  As a CUNY Law alum, I’m proud to support the Burns Chair and am pleased to welcome James Forman, Jr. to the law school. His passion and dedication to expanding access to legal education and representing people and communities underserved by the legal profession will provide great insight to not only our students but also to the community at large. We are fortunate to have him join the community.”

Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, in whose district CUNY Law was located, also had a key role in securing funding. “CUNY Law School is a leader in public interest law, and the reinstatement of the W. Haywood Burns Chair is an incredible opportunity to further that tradition. I congratulate James Forman, Jr. on his appointment as the next Burns Chair,” said Senator Gianaris.

Senator Kristen Gonzalez said, “I’m proud to have CUNY School of Law, the nation’s top public interest law school, in my district now and so pleased to support funding for the Burns Chair. Congratulations to James Forman, Jr. on his appointment as the next Burns Chair — and a warm welcome to our Queens community.”

Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani said, “New York State and Western Queens are lucky to be home to CUNY Law’s legacy of excellent legal education in the public interest as exemplified by W. Haywood Burns. The appointment of Professor James Forman Jr. to the W. Haywood Burns Chair continues this legacy and will challenge our lawyers of tomorrow to tackle the pressing needs of our day: to broaden access to education and dismantle mass incarceration.”

Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright ’92 said, “As a proud CUNY Law alum, I am pleased to have helped to secure funding for the Burns Chair in Human and Civil Rights. I am pleased to welcome James Forman, Jr. to the Law School to continue the legacy of Haywood Burns in uplifting the vital work of social justice leaders of today and in history.”

The continued support of the W. Haywood Burns Chair in Human & Civil Rights is also due to the support of many CUNY Law alumni, including New York State Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell ’87, among others.


About the City University of New York School of Law

The City University of New York School of Law is the nation’s leading public interest law school and ranked highest in diversity of students and faculty. CUNY Law has a dual mission: to recruit and train outstanding public interest lawyers and to diversify the legal profession so that it includes and reflects people and communities needed to transform justice.

Read more about James Forman Jr.’s work as the Burns Chair.