Jennifer Mason McAward
Notre Dame Law School
Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights
When Jennifer Mason McAward ’94 was an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, she knew that she wanted her life’s work to advance the cause of human dignity.
It’s a calling that led her to law school and continues to inspire her teaching and research.
“At the end of the day, I always ask myself if what I’m working on in the classroom and in my research is vindicating the God-given dignity of every person.”
“The reason I went to law school and decided to pursue a vocation in law is because law is an essential tool for advancing human dignity,” McAward said. “At the end of the day, I always ask myself if what I’m working on in the classroom and in my research is vindicating the God-given dignity of every person.”
As director of Notre Dame’s Center for Civil and Human Rights, McAward leads a unit that is focused on building capacity worldwide for lawyers to be more effective advocates for the vulnerable and oppressed. It’s a mission that stems from the Catholic tradition of justice that is at Notre Dame’s heart.
Since Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., founded the CCHR in 1973, more than 400 lawyers from over 100 countries have come to Notre Dame for the center’s LL.M. and J.S.D. programs in international human rights. Many of them, equipped with this advanced training, have returned to their home countries to be champions for their fellow citizens.
“It’s been a real gift to be part of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, especially because every year we have a cohort of international human rights advocates who come here to study. It’s a program that is essential to Notre Dame’s mission,” said McAward, who has taught civil rights law at Notre Dame Law School since 2005 and directed the CCHR since 2015.
McAward’s research focuses on how federal litigation can be an effective tool for advancing individual rights, and how the institutions of federal government can work with state and local governments to protect individual rights. Although her scholarship is focused on American law, she said the exchange with international students has been valuable.
“It’s been very beneficial for me to have a comparative viewpoint,” she said. “How do other constitutional systems structure their rules to advance human dignity? What might that say about the advantages and disadvantages of our system in the United States? At the same time, students come here and are able to think critically about the advantages and disadvantages of systems in their home countries.”
“That said, I think I have a special obligation to model to my students what it means to be a woman who is a lawyer and a woman who is a professor and a woman who has children.”
As a woman who is a lawyer, a professor and a mother, McAward said she also embraces the opportunity to show law students how she balances those roles.
“I’m pleased to say that, at Notre Dame, I don’t feel that I’m treated any differently because I’m a woman,” she said.
“That said, I think I have a special obligation to model to my students what it means to be a woman who is a lawyer and a woman who is a professor and a woman who has children,” she said. “I try to embrace each of those roles so students can see that I am passionate about the subjects I teach, that I am committed to my family, that I am committed to the center that I direct, and I am doing my very best to balance all I do.”
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, is one of McAward’s sources of inspiration. McAward served O’Connor as a law clerk from 2000 to 2001. “Justice O’Connor has excelled in many personal and professional roles and has done so with grace, wit and humility,” McAward said. “She is a great role model for me.”
McAward added that everyone can press for progress in the world by having a sense of purpose and using their talents to the fullest.
“People have different gifts, but all of us are called to be our very best,” she said. “Notre Dame shaped my sense of my vocation and my mission, so I knew Notre Dame would be a great place to give that back to students. We’re fortunate to be in a place that gives us a platform to work collectively and use our privilege to advance the dignity of each person.”
Written by Kevin Allen, Notre Dame Law School