Forging New Paths

Distinguished jurist. Female trailblazer. Devoted mother and wife. Community leader. Avid Jayhawk. In a nutshell, those words describe Deanell Reece Tacha. She became the first female chair of the KU Endowment Board of Trustees in2014, a position she still holds, and the first female Law School Dean at Pepperdine University in 2011, from where she plans to retire in 2017. She has a degree in American Studies from KU and a law degree from the University of Michigan. Tacha served as vice chancellor for academic affairs at KU, and later as a judge in the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals.


What are your proudest accomplishments?

At the top of the list by far are my four children of whom I am incredibly proud. Beyond that, I hate to take credit for a particular accomplishment because nothing is ever achieved alone.

Among my KU achievements, I’m proud that I started the University Scholars Program. Also, during my tenure as vice chancellor, we made changes that positioned KU for developments in engineering and technology. I’m proud to have played a role in establishing the first Hall Professorships in the Humanities and the Hall Center for the Humanities. Also, I worked with Dean Howard Mossberg and Professor Takeru Higuchi to help the School of Pharmacy and Department of Medicinal Chemistry reach national acclaim. 

As a judge, I served as Chief Judge of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals at a time of great growth in the caseload. I served two terms as Chair of the Judicial Conference Committee and as a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. 

At Pepperdine, with the help of generous donors, I started The Parris Institute for Professional Formation for students entering the legal profession. And I have helped introduce new civics requirements and programs in the California public schools.

What about your local community involvement?

I was part of the group that decided to move the Lawrence Arts Center to its present location. I also helped found the Freedoms Frontier National Heritage Area commemorating the area’s role in the Civil War. On a more whimsical note, I started the first Lawrence Festival of Trees that benefits The Shelter and is now a tradition.

How have your life experiences shaped you?

My family was deeply committed to education, politics, Kansas, KU and the Methodist Church. That defines who I am today. My parents impressed upon us the essential nature of giving. Thus, my work at KU Endowment is an expression of a lifelong family lesson.

In my little rural public school in Scandia, Kan., everybody had to do everything or there would not have been a band, team or club. This gave me confidence to do a lot of things. 

My years at KU, from 1964 to 1968, were the beginnings of great change in society and a personal awakening for me. Beginning with Emily Taylor who was Dean of Women at that time and including the amazing faculty who taught, challenged and mentored me, I discovered intellectual and aspirational horizons I had not even imagined. 

I also have been shaped by being the first or second woman to do almost everything I have done professionally. I was fortunate to be selected as a White House Fellow right out of law school.


What were the biggest challenges you encountered in your career?

The biggest challenge has been balancing an active career with the commitment to my husband and four children (and now five grandchildren), and to community service. I have an exceptional spouse whose support of my aspirations and devotion to our family made it all possible.

A consummate team player, Tacha is known for her vision and ability to work with academic leaders. Here she greets retired Vice Chancellor for Research Howard Mossberg, with whom she teamed to expand the School of Pharmacy and Department of Medicinal Chemistry while they worked at KU.Mark McDonald

Another challenge has been navigating in a profession where women were a distinct minority. I have encountered what all minorities experience — implicit bias that is quite explicit to the victim, having to prove myself, the challenges of a male culture that sometimes excludes women in decision-making. I chose to do all I could for women wherever I could, but did not dwell on the personal challenges.

You have lived in both the east and west coasts, Colorado and Kansas. What is your favorite place?

My favorite spot on earth is our little lake cabin just outside of Lawrence. This is where I take a deep breath, turn off the technology and mostly do nothing. What a joy!