Hutchinson brings social justice, social science focus to UF Law

When Darren Hutchinson moved back after 26 years of studying and teaching across the U.S., he drove through his old East Gainesville neighborhood, and what he saw made him sad.Hutchinson_Darren

“Archer Road is totally different than when I grew up here. Then I drive to East University Avenue, and it’s exactly the same,” he said.

The desire for more equal economic development is just one indication of the strong sense of social justice and advocacy for change Hutchinson brings to the UF Law faculty.

Hutchinson, a Gainesville native who taught as a visiting professor last year, writes and teaches about constitutional law, racial justice, LGBT rights and other social issues.

The 1993 Yale Law graduate was awarded the Stephen C. O’Connell Chair this fall, a distinction Hutchinson celebrated because he said it will give him “more resources to do things,” such as continuing his mission to educate about civil rights and equality.

The previous law schools he taught at — Washington College of Law and American University — were private schools with large international populations, and he said this meant teaching very generalized ideas.

Coming to UF, he said, his target audience is more defined, so he has more leverage to address specific issues he knows his students will encounter in the real world.

“I know most of my students grew up in Florida,” he said. “I know most of my students will practice law in Florida. A lot of them will become judges and lawmakers and policymakers here. I feel I have a direct influence on them.”

One such issue is public education.

Hutchinson said the Gainesville elementary school he went to as a child was comprised of a healthy mix of ethnicities and income levels. Now, he said, most of the attendees are low-income, black students.

“Those conditions are really bad for educating kids,” he said, noting that successful students — and lawyers — have multiple influences. “I really would like to see those schools be what they were before, so a kid can go there and become a law professor.”

Social change and social justice: “Those are my passions. That’s the heart of law to me. Lawyers have always been the enforcers of social justice, and I think that we have that role.”

To pass on his passions of social justice and change in the classroom, Hutchinson’s philosophy is to first build trust with his students so they feel they can freely exchange ideas.

“I try to create an environment that is very conducive to students saying their opinions in a legal context,” he said. “I work to get that trust, and then I’ll start questioning them more. I don’t want to bombard them with my ideas.”

He said it’s all about challenging students to sharpen their ideas by helping them pinpoint weaknesses in their arguments and identifying how to strengthen their arguments.

“At the same time, I hope they become conscious of the need for more justice,” he said. “That’s why I love teaching.”

Spencer Winpol, a 2L who was one of Hutchinson’s students last year and who works as his research assistant now, said Hutchinson’s down-to-earth attitude wins his classes over.

“Everyone really likes him because he’s really approachable,” said Winpol, who enjoys chatting with Hutchinson about football. “You wouldn’t know that he knows all that he does because he doesn’t put it in your face. He’s very humble about all his accomplishments.”

Much of Hutchinson’s research deals with gathering concrete facts and figures to illustrate abstract social problems. To that end, Winpol is helping Hutchinson compile numbers to illustrate the “disparate treatment between blacks and Hispanics in government- funded programs.”

Hutchinson is also striving to build collaboration between UF’s law program and social sciences.

He recently received an email from UF’s African-American Studies program office, asking him to open his class seminar, constitutional law and civil rights, to graduate students in that program.

Hutchinson used the opening to contact UF’s political science and sociology departments to begin coordinating similar partnerships.

Because you must look at how laws operate within society to understand their full effects, Hutchinson said, fostering conversations between the social science and law fields is essential.

“Lawyers often believe they can solve every problem on their own, but we need the help of other experts,” he said. “Legal problems are bigger than just thinking about the law. You have to think about how society works as well.”