Don Burnett has served as a part of the “army of the right,” as he calls it, for most of his life.
He is currently a professor and past dean at the University of Idaho College of Law, and served as interim president of the university during the 2013-14 school year.
He will retire this spring after 14 years with UI.
Burnett said one of the experiences that led him to choose law occurred in his hometown of Pocatello, Idaho, in 1960, when he was just 14 years old.
His dad had introduced him to a lawyer, who Burnett called Mr. Davis, who did pro bono work for the nearby Native American Tribes. They were going hunting on the reservation.
“As we were walking with guns on both of our arms, an old woman said “No shoot!” and ran away as quickly as she could,” Burnett said. “Mr. Davis didn”t seem surprised, like he had seen this before.”
When Davis asked a young Donnie Burnett what he thought had just happened, he wasn”t sure.
“So Mr. Davis said to me “Think back to when she might have seen a white man with a gun for the first time. I think that might explain what you just saw,”” Burnett said.
The two then got into a deep conversation about right versus might, and Davis explained that he had found fulfillment in being part of the army of the right.
Burnett said he can still remember watching the sun set that night, and deciding that he, too, wanted to be a part of the army of the right.
He graduated from Pocatello High School, then proceeded to get his baccalaureate degree from Harvard, his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Chicago, and a Master of Laws degree from the University of Virginia.
During those years, he met his future wife, discovered an interest in academia and gave guest lectures occasionally at the University of Idaho.
After ten years as Dean of the Brandeis College of Law in Louisville, a deanship position opened up at UI, and Burnett was happy to take it.
“My parents went here after growing up in Wallace. For them, the university was a gateway to the world,” Burnett said. “So I always felt a debt of gratitude to the university for what it had done for them, and therefore for my family.”
Burnett served as dean for 10 years, then spent a year as interim president, then returned to teach courses in the College of Law.
During that time, Burnett worked to broaden participation by staff and faculty in university decision-making, to protect student health and safety and emphasize collaboration with sister institutions in promoting higher education throughout Idaho.
He said he quickly realized that most people go to law school because they really want to do some good in the world, which is one of the purposes of the pro bono program that he has helped establish in the UI”s College of Law.
“If you can harness your endowment of talent to good purposes with the skills to make a difference, it can make a transformation in your life,” Burnett said of the pro bono program.
Burnett said it is one of the jewels in the crown of the university, but there are many more amazing qualities at UI.
“The university is situated at the intersection of thought and action,” Burnett said. “It is both a privilege and a challenge to go to work every day.”
He said every new fall semester has brought a renewed sense of hope, energy and purpose. He said this has filled his heart, and he will miss it.
Burnett said his students have brought joy to him over the years, as well.
“One of my great joys of law school has been sharing the ideas of law, justice, and ethics with students in the classroom. Often, I have learned as much from them as they learned from me,” Burnett said.
He suggests that students connect to something that they love, and pursue that passion.
“Be bold, look for something that is fulfilling. In the long run, if you love what you do, the money won”t be important,” Burnett said. “If you don”t love what you do, there”s not enough money to make you happy.”