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Legal community celebrates the life and career of UHLC Professor Emeritus Michael A. Olivas

Attending the Celebration of Life for Professor Emeritus Michael A. Olivas are, from left, UH Law Center Dean Leonard M. Baynes, alumna Leah Gross ’87, Olivas’ wife Professor Emerita Dr. Augustina Reyes, John Gross and Associate Dean of Alumni and Community Relations Sondra Tennessee.

Attending the Celebration of Life for Professor Emeritus Michael A. Olivas are, from left, UH Law Center Dean Leonard M. Baynes, alumna Leah Gross ’87, Olivas’ wife Professor Emerita Dr. Augustina Reyes, John Gross and Associate Dean of Alumni and Community Relations Sondra Tennessee.

July 27, 2022 — Friends, students, staff and alumni recently gathered online and in person to celebrate the life of University of Houston Law Center Professor Emeritus Michael A. Olivas, who spent 38 years as a member of the University of Houston Law Center community. Olivas unexpectedly died on April 22 at 71 years old.

The mood was bright in the room as Dean Leonard M. Baynes welcomed everyone.

“Michael was a great scholar, a great teacher, and a humanitarian,” said Baynes in his welcoming remarks. 

In Olivas scholarly work, Baynes mentioned the 16 books published during his academic career, a level of writing that is “unprecedented in the legal world.” As a teacher and a confidant, Baynes described Olivas as a leadership “whisperer” advising Baynes and Renu Khator, Chancellor of the University of Houston System and President of the University of Houston.

An original musical composition by Immigration Clinic Director, Professor Geoffrey Hoffman was accompanied by images of Olivas, followed by a video recording from Khator.

Khator described Olivas as “a leader, a visionary, and above all a true friend.” She recalled that when she first crossed paths with Olivas, she thought he was welcoming her; instead he “challenged me from that very first meeting,” Khator said. “He wanted me to understand the issues of Houston and the University.”

Many speakers mentioned how Olivas would advise leaders but was not given a leadership role. That was until Khator asked him to be interim president of UH-Downtown, a role he served in for a year.

“Under his leadership, UH-Downtown received a $10 million gift and he gained access to land to grow the campus,” Khator said. “Michael is gone, but he will never be forgotten.”

Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson introduced a long list of people that Olivas had mentored, befriended, and supported unconditionally over the years.

“Connections with Michael run very, very deep,” she said.

Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, Penn State Law Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion spoke about how Olivas “would take you under his wing and treat you not just as a colleague, but as family.”

UH’s Arte Público Press Founder and Director Nicolás Kanellos explained how Olivas was a seminary student which gave him a “desire to do good and fight evil” and while many seminary students focused on making the afflicted comfortable, Olivas made it his life’s goal to “afflict the comfortable.”

Linda Sheryl Greene, Dean and MSU Foundation Professor of Law at Michigan State University College of Law was amazed at how much Olivas did to help others during his career.

“Unlike the many who are too busy to acknowledge their colleagues, Michael took the opportunity to be a mentor,” Greene said.

Yocel Alonso, a longtime friend and UHLC Adjunct Professor of Entertainment Law, shared what Olivas loved.

“His first musical love was Aretha Franklin," Alonso said. "She was notorious for not showing up for her concerts but that didn’t bother Michael; he was an Aretha fan for life."

Olivas combined his love of music and the legal world into a regular show on the Albuquerque, New Mexico public radio station KANW, when he retired. He discussed legal developments in the world of music and entertainment, and he quickly became known as “The Rock and Roll Law Professor.” Olivas became such a household name in New Mexico that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham eulogized him at his funeral.

Many of the speakers mentioned the lasting impact of Olivas scholarship and advocacy around immigration law, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and diversity, equity, and inclusion before it was commonplace.

“He was a man who advocated for DEI ahead of his time,” Baynes said. “When most people were paying lip service to it, he fought for it.”

As a humanitarian, Olivas fought for Latinx individuals to be employed by law schools across the country and, through his efforts, the number of Latinx faculty members grew across the United States from 20 to 300. That group of law professors will continue his work on diversity said Guerra Thompson.

The New Mexico Law Review will dedicate their summer law journal issue to Olivas and his career. The Hispanic Section of the State Bar of Texas is creating a scholarship in Olivas name to be awarded to students for exceptional academic achievement. The UH Law Center is taking donations for the Hispanic Law Alumni Scholarship fund in memory of Michael A. Olivas. To donate, go to Select “Hispanic Law Alumni Scholarship” from the drop-down menu and note your gift is in honor of Michael A. Olivas. Lastly, a reading room sponsored by Olivas and his wife Dr. Augustina “Tina” Reyes, a UH College of Education Professor Emerita, has been designed as part of the new The John M. O'Quinn Law Building.

“There will be a place in the building that will bear his name, that people will see long after he’s gone,” Baynes said. “That students of color will see that we had this great Latinx professor, they can aspire to be like him and Tina.”

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