Our students are so sophisticated about the issues, that they contribute something new to every discussion.”
President and Dean
Professor of Law
Like many other faculty and staff at Vermont Law School, Marc Mihaly is a true people person. Long before he became interested in the law, he was concerned with issues of equality, race, and social justice. During his childhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, he lived in a university community that fostered liberal thinking in an otherwise conservative atmosphere. "When I was twelve years old," he says, "I campaigned for Kennedy—but I was definitely in the minority."
In 1969, after finishing college at Harvard, Mihaly joined the Peace Corps. "My time in El Salvador was the most intense period of my life," he explains. "As a political organizer, I was living and working in a slum. I learned about politics, equality, poverty, organization—and especially about people. The mayor, whom I admired, was a lawyer, and since I wasn't sure what else I wanted to do, I decided to try law school."
At this time, Richard Nixon had recently been elected, and people were still reeling from the Kent State massacre. "It was a terrible time," Mihaly says. Nevertheless, he continued his battle against poverty and inequality by working for legal aid while attending Boalt Hall School of Law in Berkeley, California. On a whim, he also joined the Ecology Law Quarterly, serving as its editor in chief from 1973–74. "It was another way to throw myself into social change," he explains, "and it was my introduction to issues of energy and the environment. But in the end, I didn’t want to work in the environmental field after graduating. My heart was still with the people issues—equality and social justice."
Instead, Mihaly went to work for legal aid in San Francisco, and it was here that his worlds collided. "The Committee to Save San Bruno Mountain walked in and asked to be represented. They qualified through low income, and they showed us how the planned development would gentrify the town of Brisbane and would therefore result in the loss of low-income housing."
Working this case—and seeing how issues of poverty and the environment could mesh—led Mihaly to join the environmental unit of the California Attorney General's office. In 1980, he and two other members of this unit decided to found a law firm that would be different from anything anybody had ever seen.
"Our goal was to be an ideological firm," he says. "We represented citizen and community groups dealing with environmental issues, keeping our focus progressive and our costs low. It worked exactly as planned and is now the largest firm of its kind in the country. We've handled everything—water, air, and energy issues, land use, even endangered species."
Mihaly stayed with the firm for nearly 25 years before deciding it was time for a change of scene. "Once again," he explains, "it all came down to people. My family and I fell in love with the community at Vermont Law School. It was important to me that I was surrounded by people who cared about the environment. As acting director and then Director of the Environmental Law Center, I helped create both the Institute for Energy and the Environment and the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems. The research opportunities offered here at VLS bring enormous depth and experience to our students' education.
In 2012, a national search for a president and dean of the law school led the search committee to a candidate already familiar to and with the Vermont Law School community, and they announced their selection of Marc Mihaly as the school's eighth president and dean. Mihaly stepped into that role in August 2012.
"I know this is where I want to be," he says. "It's not just because my colleagues are interested in talking about the environment. It's because our students are so sophisticated about the issues that they contribute something new to every discussion."