Coming Full Circle
Robin Morris Collin is a warrior. Her teaching, writing and public service all reflect her lifelong dedication to civil rights and her desire to protect the downtrodden. She’s written and lectured extensively on environmental issues. Her work is not just about protecting the earth but also about protecting the most vulnerable people living on it, those who are too young or too ignorant or too poor and powerless to effect change on their own. For her, it’s all connected, part of a great circle.
“We can’t talk about poverty and fixing the problems of poverty without talking about the environment,” she said. “Nor can we talk about healing the environment without dealing with poverty.”
Her desire is to help bring community, environment and economics into a working, beneficial relationship. To that end, she and her husband, Robert Collin, founded the annual Conference Against Environmental Racism at the University of Oregon and helped establish the Environmental Justice Action Group in Portland. Both groups bring together people from various fields who are willing to work together to improve conditions in their own urban communities.
She strongly believes that this multi-disciplined approach to problems facing today’s world should be adopted by universities. It’s an approach she brings to the law school.
“In 1993, I was the first person to teach sustainability in a law school,” she said. “There were no law courses on sustainability and how the law can embrace concepts of sustainability. Courses like sustainability and environmental justice are opportunities to build bridges across disciplines. It’s something that’s very dynamic and very powerful that creates students who are prepared to operate today in a real world that’s very different from the world we professors inhabited 20 years ago.
“We have to do more of this multidisciplinary work. When I teach that seminar again I hope to attract Atkinson School of Management graduates so they can bring their clientele and their professional notions of what is called ‘green economics.’ Can we make money in a way that doesn’t require us to debilitate either our environment or our people? The answer is passionately, absolutely yes, Not only can we do it, we have to do it.”
Morris Collin said her impassioned mix of scholarship and activism is a product of her upbringing. In her family, both education and civility were highly prized. She, her brother and sister were raised with a love of learning and a deep sense of dignity. They were encouraged to freely express ideas, as long as they showed respect for others. Name-calling was expressly forbidden.
Her strong stand for equality and civil rights harks back to her father’s father, a Methodist minister who wanted to be a lawyer. He poured his energy into the struggle to unite the church. Since the time of slavery, the church had had a white branch and a black branch, the African Methodist Episcopal church. Morris Collin’s grandfather, among others, was instrumental in ending race discrimination by the church.
Morris Collin’s beloved father died more than 10 years ago, but the rest of her family is still united in the family shipping business, the Red River Shipping Company. Headquartered in Rockville, Md., it is the first and only African American-owned and operated shipping line in the country. The company owns three ocean-going vessels, whose photos Morris Collin proudly displays in her Willamette office. Her brother, an Atkinson graduate, manages the business.
Morris Collin noted that Red River Shipping is quite literally an affirmative action business. She said her father astutely noticed that no maritime companies were asking for contracts designated for minority businesses. He found a joint venture equity partner, bought a container ship and he was in business. Last year, the family paid off the partner, making them full owners.
Also displayed in her office is the badge and the picture I.D. Morris Collin carried as a Maricopa County assistant county attorney in Phoenix, the job she held before beginning her teaching career 20 years ago.
“Now I just look at how young I used to look,” she said with a laugh.
She said she is at Willamette University College of Law to stay. She and her husband bought a home in Salem with plenty of room for their dogs. To know Morris Collin is to know her canine companions. In class, she uses their names to “people” her examples.
“Serendipity is really operating,” she said. “Once we decided to come to Willamette, everything fell into place. Things have happened that are good for us and good for our family. It’s really made me feel that coming to Willamette was the right decision.”
Morris Collin believes Willamette University College of Law has always been her destiny. She just didn’t realize it until recently.
She says the Willamette University connections just kept coming. First, there was her criminal law professor at Arizona State, Robert Misner, a friend and colleague of her father. Misner went on to become dean of Willamette University College of Law.
“When I first went into teaching law 20 years ago, Robert Misner offered me a job at Willamette,” she recalled. “I started teaching somewhere else, but my journey has actually been a great big circle.”
Her first teaching job was at Tulane University in New Orleans. There she met Symeon C. Symeonides, Willamette’s current law school dean.
Then her brother, John Payton Morris MBA’88, graduated from the Atkinson Graduate School of Management.
“It’s like I was meant to make it here to Willamette,” she said. “And I’m glad I did.”
Morris Collin teaches Criminal Law, Remedies and Criminal Procedure, along with a host of classes focused on sustainability law.
“Robin was born to be a teacher,” said Symeonides, who has known her for 20 years. “She’s enthusiastic and students really love her. She’s also a good scholar.”
On leave from the University of Oregon, where she was a tenured law professor, Morris Collin was a visiting professor at Willamette last year. She and her husband both had teaching positions at U of O, but rather than return to Eugene, they opted to make the move to Willamette.
“Having visited Willamette for a year, I saw the changes that Dean Symeonides was making and some of the things that he had already achieved,” she explained. “I think Willamette is the place to be. I feel at home in the culture, with the whole atmosphere, from the students to the faculty to the administration and the staff. The law school has a strong commitment to achievement that really resonates with me.”
Morris Collin believes that both Willamette University President M. Lee Pelton and Dean Symeonides have demonstrated a strong commitment to diversity and to excellence. “What I like so much about Willamette,” she said, “is that the vision is here. Diversity does mean excellence. What we can do in the name of diversity and excellence is build a remarkable place for the future.”