Texas A&M School of Law professor Thomas W. Mitchell has been named a 2020 fellow of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for his work in reforming laws and developing policy solutions that help disadvantaged families deprived of their land, homes and real estate wealth.
The “genius grant,” considered to be among the prestigious awards or fellowships in the world, is given to individuals “who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” The distinction comes with a $625,000 no-strings-attached stipend.
Fellows are nominated anonymously by leaders in their respective fields and considered by an anonymous selection committee. Selection criteria includes exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.
Mitchell said he was overcome by the news.
“When I started nearly 25 years ago, my ideas for law reform to help disadvantaged property owners were considered nearly impossible to achieve. I tell my students that they can make a real difference,” Mitchell said. “No matter how inevitable and seemingly permanent any injustice may appear to be, if you use your imagination and think boldly, develop a strategy, cultivate allies, and remain determined, change can come.”
Mitchell’s research primarily addresses real property issues that impact poor and disadvantaged communities, many of which are rural. He seeks to understand how the ability or inability of individuals or communities to build and retain assets can impact inequality.
Robert Ahdieh, dean of the School of Law, has known Mitchell for almost 30 years and was not surprised by the announcement.
“From the time I first met him as a law student, I have always been struck by Thomas’ commitment to positively impacting law and society,” Ahdieh said. “With his incredible work on reforming the law of partition, he has managed to do so in ways that are fundamental and lasting — and to which most law professors can only aspire.”
Mitchell has served since 2016 as a professor of law and co-director of the Program in Real Estate and Community Development Law, which focuses on urban and rural real estate, housing, land use and community development law challenges.
He is the principal drafter of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA), which was promulgated by the Uniform Law Commission to improve the ability of families who own so-called heirs’ property owners to maintain ownership of their properties and preserve their real estate wealth. The UPHPA has been enacted in 17 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands since 2011, and was drawn upon in the Farm Bill, which was passed by Congress in 2018 in part to help heirs’ property owners maintain ownership of their property and access government assistance programs for farming and ranching operations.
“I am absolutely delighted that the MacArthur Foundation recognized the brilliant work of Thomas Mitchell,” said Michael K. Young, president of Texas A&M University. “His scholarship and indeed self-described life mission of helping disadvantaged property owners is the core value of selfless service in action that we teach students.”