World-renowned scholar. Award-winning author. Sought-after speaker.
And now, Renee Knake Jefferson is the University of Houston’s newest Fulbright Alumni Ambassador.
“It’s profoundly rewarding on a personal and professional level,” said Jefferson, after being selected to the prestigious U.S. Department of State program.
When she’s not providing expert legal commentary on national television and radio, Jefferson is a law professor and the Joanne and Larry Doherty Chair in Legal Ethics at the University of Houston Law Center.
“Renee is a Renaissance woman,” said UH Law Dean Leonard M. Baynes. “There is no one more deserving of this great honor to serve as a Fulbright Alumni Scholar Ambassador, and I have no doubts that she will do a fabulous job in that role.“
Jefferson always wanted to be a lawyer and was the first from her family to go to law school.
“I wanted to be a lawyer not only to understand the law, but to help make law more accessible and to be an advocate for reform when law did not produce justice.”
Jefferson earned her law degree from the University of Chicago Law School, and she soon discovered her passion for ethics while practicing at large corporate firms and as an assistant city attorney. “Most of my teaching and research is inspired by things I experienced in my own early years of law practice.”
Prior to joining the UH faculty in 2016, she taught at the Michigan State University College of Law for a decade. It was there that she was first introduced to the highly competitive Fulbright Scholar Program when she hosted a scholar from Eastern Europe. The program supports more than 800 U.S. faculty and professionals each year to teach or conduct research in over 135 countries around the world.
In 2019, Jefferson became a Fulbright Scholar herself when she was awarded one of the program’s most prestigious appointments: the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Entrepreneurship at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. She lived there with her family for seven months while doing research on how tools of entrepreneurship and innovation can increase access to justice.
“It was life-changing on many levels,” she said. “And when I came back, of course I wanted to pay that forward.”
Since 2011, UH has had 22 Fulbright Scholars. One of the program’s key priorities is to increase the diversity and quality of the scholars who participate, and the range of higher education institutions represented. That’s where the Ambassadors come in. Considered the “best of the best,” they are selected through a competitive process and serve two-year terms representing Fulbright on the world’s stage. Jefferson’s goal is to help others navigate the process and be a good steward and advocate for the program’s future.
“Professor Jefferson’s appointment as a Fulbright Alumni Ambassador further demonstrates that she is indeed an exceptional scholar,” said Paula Myrick Short, UH senior vice president for academic affairs and provost. “All of us at UH applaud her efforts and are proud that she is representing our university within the Fulbright Scholar program.”
Jefferson is also a prolific author with four books and dozens of academic articles to her name. Some of her work has been cited in U.S. Supreme Court briefs, prestigious law reviews and a range of local and national media.
In her latest book, “Shortlisted: Women in the Shadows of the Supreme Court”, she examines the inspiring and previously untold history of women considered – but not selected – for the nation’s highest court.
“In recent years, my biggest influence has come from uncovering unknown stories about early female trailblazers in law by digging through presidential papers and personal archives for research on that book,” she said.
As for what’s next, Jefferson will continue writing, teaching, and helping others understand and improve the legal system. And try to inspire the next generation of legal minds.
“I hope to help my children, now teens, find their own professional pursuits that bring them as much joy and satisfaction as my career as a law professor has done for me.”