Browne C. Lewis. Courtesy of NCCU Law School website. 

North Carolina Central University’s chancellor on Friday announced that the university’s law school dean has died.

The university statement did not disclose a cause of death.

Browne C. Lewis became dean of the NC Central University School of Law on July 1, 2020, weeks after the police murder of George Floyd, amid global protests and calls for racial justice.

She died suddenly on Thursday while attending a conference in Colorado, the school’s chancellor, Johnson Akinleye, said in a statement posted on the university’s website.

Akinleye, while noting that his announcement was accompanied with “profound sadness,” described Lewis as “a fallen Eagle” and an “accomplished  legal scholar, attorney, and author” who made an immediate impact on the law school.

“Her vision was clear from day one in leading the school as one that provides unique opportunities for diverse, talented future attorneys to be practice-ready practitioners in their chosen legal careers,” Akinleye said in the statement. 

Akinleye noted that during her brief tenure at the helm of the law school that ended just short of two years, Lewis “accumulated numerous accomplishments” both for the law school and the university at large.

The chancellor said Lewis was “laser-focused” on the law school’s re-accreditation with the American Bar Association (ABA), which was approved in “in full compliance with ABA standards” in November of 2020, just months after she was named dean.

“Equally important, enrollment increased year-over-year at a time when other law schools saw steady decreases,” Akinleye added. 

Months before her death, Lewis said Floyd’s death at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer created a “political climate in the country with regards to social justice. 

“I think there was a reckoning where you had students of color, in particular wanting to go to law school with a commitment to diversity and social justice,” she told Bob Friedman, publisher of Attorney at Law Magazine (AALM), in March. “That’s our history. NCCU Law School was created to foster segregation, but when we were designed, the program we put in place was to increase diversity because we wanted to be one of the most diverse law schools in the country, which has resonated with a lot of young people.”

Lewis added that when NCCU law school officials talk to young people, “they want to go places where they can really serve the public and increase access to justice and social justice broadly, not just the criminal justice system, by looking at fair housing, consumer protection, credit scores and lending practices.”

Moreover, in an increasingly conservative political climate that eschews diversity, Lewis made it a cornerstone of the law school’s recruitment efforts.

“When you go out and recruit people, and you recruit diverse students, and you bring them into a situation they have to feel included, but they also have to feel they belong. As an HBCU law school, the myth is that we educate only African American students. That could not be farther from the truth,” Lewis said.

“We educate a diverse population of students. For this recruiting season, we must look at diversity and inclusion broadly. For example, we created a Native American initiative to increase the number of Native American students. We’re working with UNC at Pembroke and other Native American serving schools to increase that number.”

In addition to above average bar passing rates, Akinleye said that under Lewis’s leadership, the law school “received a number of gifts from corporations and foundations,” along with “prestigious law internships and fellowships…awarded to students.”

Akinleye pointed to a “transformational” $5 million contribution from the Intel Corporation created the NCCU-Intel Tech Law and Policy Center, “the first for a historically Black college and university,” that he said is “the only tech and law policy center that focuses on technology disparities and social justice.”

“Dean Lewis was extremely passionate about social justice and its intersection with law,” Akinleye said.

During her interview with AALM, Lewis told Friedman that  her long-term vision for the law school was “to elevate it to more of a national law school than a regional law school and to do that by focusing on tech law and health law.”

Lewis explained that “with Apple moving a campus here, tech law will be even more important. We have a patent law clinic. We have a trademark clinic. We have relationships with HBCUs that have engineering and computer science programs.”

The legal scholar and law school leader added that she enjoyed telling NCCU law students “that we’re preparing them for jobs that have not been created yet. 

“So, for example, we’re offering courses in logistics, blockchain and data analytics,” she told Friedman. “And my vision is not just to teach and expose our students to technology. But to make sure that we use technology to make the delivery of legal education more efficient.”

NCCU’s fallen Eagle also shared a bit of her personal history and how her lived experience shaped the values she wanted to imprint on the law school.

“The key value I want to imprint on the law school is overcoming the impossible through hard work, perseverance, and tenacity,” Lewis said. “It is important to overcome adversity and realize that you can accomplish any goal even if you do it in bite-sized pieces. 

“I’m one of 12 children from a family in a small country town in Louisiana,” Lewis added. “I grew up knowing that you have to persevere, overcome adversity, and keep pushing forward. Likewise, NCCU School of Law is one of only six HBCU law schools in the country. We’re the underdog pushing forward.”

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