Michelle Travis, Professor, Faculty since 2003

Toolbox not Soapbox

Professor Travis is teaching her students to use the law as a tool to make real change.

One of the biggest changes I’ve tried to bring to the classroom and to legal education at USF is empowering students to see themselves as change agents who can use the law as a tool to improve lives, to advance justice, and to solve problems.

Professor Michelle Travis believes the full-time, face-time expectation of the modern workplace discriminates against non-traditional workers, including those with parenting or other caregiving responsibilities. She’s made it her life’s work to change that.

"I want people to understand that equal employment opportunity requires flexible job design. My goal has been to develop theories for using employment discrimination law as a tool to increase workplace flexibility,” Michelle says. “It’s the same approach I try to bring into the classroom – seeing the law as a tool to make social change, to advance justice, and to solve problems."

Michelle knows that changing the cultural norms of a workplace is challenging, but she has had some success. She’s worked with economists and others in business to demonstrate there’s a business and financial case for workplace flexibility. Michelle’s also worked with employers to talk about workplace flexibility and how it would benefit them.

“My favorite part of being a law professor at USF is getting to see the professional transformation that law students undergo while they’re at USF as they embrace the role of counselor and advocate. They start to understand what it means to serve a client’s interests above their own and what it means to give clients a voice in our legal system.”

Recently, she was a member of the Pregnancy Accommodation Working Group, which was able to persuade the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission to adopt new guidelines on accommodations for women who are pregnant.

Michelle also has an impact in the classroom. Twice in the last three years, she won a professor of the year award, selected by members of the graduating law class.

“I hope students see how passionate I am about the collaborative nature of learning law and how seriously I take individual learning and making sure that each student finds success, empowerment, and a supportive community,” Michelle says.

Michelle says it was a very specific decision to teach at USF instead of elsewhere. “I came because of the school’s social justice mission and its commitment to diversity and inclusivity,” Michelle says. “I often describe USF as the law school that is diversifying who lawyers are and what lawyers do. For me, that describes why I am at USF.”

The students, she says, inspire her on a daily basis. “Every day, I feel like I have the privilege of working with our students,” Michelle says. “I am energized by their tenacity and I am moved by their compassion. To feel inspired by them is phenomenal.”

“One of USF’s biggest strengths is letting students know that whatever field they’re in, whether it’s employment law or business law or criminal law, that the social justice mission can guide them to make ethical decisions as they face the challenges and privileges of being a member of the legal profession.”

That inspiration helps further fuel her own research, setting an example for students in using the law for change.

“If I could change one thing in the world, it would be to ensure that all individuals, regardless of sex, race, disability, care-giving responsibilities, or any other characteristic have the opportunity to find meaningful life’s work,” Michelle says. “That’s what’s pushing me, the belief that everyone should have that chance to find meaningful life’s work and to have that work be done with dignity, equality, and respect.”