By Glenda Graves | Portrait photo by Meredith Mashburn
Dean Cynthia Nance, University of Arkansas School of Law
That violin certainly opened doors for Cyndi. She earned a violin scholarship to attend Valparaiso University in Indiana, but it didn’t cover all her expenses. She was working hard in addition to attending classes and made the decision in her senior year to walk away. “I was a bit of a knucklehead,” Cyndi said. “I took a job as a cashier in a drug store, and then as a security guard. While I was working as a security guard in an office building downtown, I met a guy who was a computer engineer coming to do maintenance. He said I was much too smart to be working as a security guard.”
When Cynthia “Cyndi” Nance was named dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law in 2006, she made history as the first woman and first person of color to serve in this position at the U of A. The following year, she was a speaker for the inaugural Martin Luther King Day celebration in Saipan. In 2011, she was named the first Nathan G. Gordon Professor of Law at the university, an endowed honor for law professors who demonstrate “a commitment to law, excellence and public service.” Then, in June 2022, having been dean emeritus since 2012, Cyndi was again named dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law.
Cyndi grew up on the south side of Chicago, the older sister to three brothers. Her dad, a truck driver who eventually transitioned into driving for the U.S. Postal Service, exemplified a strong work ethic. “My father never missed a day of work,” Cyndi said.
Her mother was a legal secretary in the U.S. Attorney’s office. Cyndi said her mother, who was never able to finish her college education, wanted Cyndi to do and see more.
When Cyndi was old enough to play a musical instrument, her mother took her to the Lyon and Healy music store in Chicago to pick her instrument. “I chose the violin,” she said. “There was this very elegant lady there wearing a fur coat who commented that I made a good choice. She told us that playing the violin would open doors for me. My mom recognized her as Marian Anderson, a famous Black American opera singer.”
Former Associate Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner with Dean Cyndi Nance before dedicating the new law school building at the University of Arkansas in 2009
He taught her how to operate a computer, and she got a job at Ace Hardware’s corporate headquarters. She took advantage of the company’s education reimbursement program, working midnight to 8 a.m. and then attending classes. She transferred to Chicago State University and finished her undergraduate education in economics and finance. “It took me 10 years to finish my undergraduate degree,” she said.
Even though it took some extra time to complete her college degree, Cyndi was serious about her education. She attended a law school forum where she met Dennis Shields, who worked in admissions at the University of Iowa College of Law. He asked her about her GPA and major and suggested that, even if she didn’t go to his law school, she should attend law school. “But I was still hard-headed and didn’t apply,” Cyndi said. “He somehow got my mom’s phone number through something I had filled out and contacted her. She contacted my auntie, and they both got on me to apply. I finally filled out my application and was accepted.”
Cyndi said Shields’ support represented one of the many times in her life when someone saw something in her that she didn’t see and took an interest in her future. Shields continued to play a very important role in her life, and Cyndi has since established a scholarship in his name at the University of Iowa. “Life has been serendipitous,” she said. “I have benefited from people who steer me the right way, and I think a scholarship is a great way to honor that.”
It was through the guidance of the faculty at the University of Iowa College of Law that she began to consider becoming a professor of law. She did a post graduate fellowship program and got an offer from the schools of law at both the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Arkansas. “Both schools offered the same salary, but I just found not only the weather to be preferable in Arkansas, but also the sense of community when I came here,” Cyndi said.
Though she admits that she didn’t really have plans to stay for the long term, when she moved to Arkansas in 1994, she loved so much about the state. She loves to tell the story of meeting former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who was chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas at the time, while in Hot Springs for the Arkansas Bar Association meeting. “I was going to breakfast and this very tall guy walked up and asked if he could join me,” she said. “It turned out to be Asa Hutchinson. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but we have gotten to know one another, and he has been helpful to me over the years.”
Recently Hutchinson appointed Cyndi to the Arkansas PBS Commission. “They have a place on the board for an educator. I am learning now what all it takes to run the station,” Cyndi said. “I got to go to the regional Emmys in October, and it was very glamorous and exciting for me. But I am most proud of AETN’s educational programming for our students in Arkansas and the continuing education units for teachers. During the pandemic, Arkansas PBS was incredibly helpful by creating programing so that students could get their education online.”
In the years since coming to the University of Arkansas School of Law, Cyndi has created a path for female attorneys, particularly those of color, that allows them to accomplish more than they might imagine. Some of Cyndi’s favorite classes most recently include a leadership class. “The class addresses some of the soft skills you don’t usually get in school,” she said. “For instance, operating in a diverse world… we talk about etiquette and self-awareness. We have units on personal and financial wellness, and we have a debrief after each speaker.”
In January, Cyndi received the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of American Law Schools. This award highlighted Cyndi’s lifetime of mentoring, activism and providing opportunities for others. She has helped to promote the importance of public service to law school students for more than 20 years. But more than anything, she models the behavior of service for her students.
Cyndi attributes her motivation to serve the community to her faith. “I know all that I have and am is a reflection of God’s grace,” Cyndi said, “and I am grateful to the members of my faith community, Good Shepherd Lutheran, for their love, support and encouragement over the years.”
Most recently, Cyndi was named to the Lawyers of Color’s 2023 Power List, recognizing some of the most influential minority attorneys in the U.S.
When she isn’t giving back to her community, she said her greatest love is travel. Cyndi usually takes big trips over winter break and in the summer. She also enjoys riding her Harley-Davidson motorcycle. She said when she became dean, some of her colleagues at the law school said, “Please don’t get on your bike!”
She has a deep love for her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, though she has been less active since assuming deanship. She previously served in leadership roles including vice president and president and is a charter member of the Phi Alpha Omega Chapter.
Though Dean Cyndi Nance didn’t quite expect to be a long-term resident of Arkansas, the community is glad she stayed.She models academic achievement and public service not only for her students, but for everyone.