Business & Society

Aggie Women Lead: Mica McKinney, General Counsel for Utah State

By Isaiah Jones |

Editor’s Note: As part of a series commemorating women leaders at Utah State University, Utah State Today is publishing profiles of a variety of leaders. This interview with Vice President Mica McKinney is in observation of March as Women’s History Month.

Mica McKinney is the vice president of Legal Affairs and the general counsel at Utah State University. During her 15-year career, she served as clerk to the University of Utah’s Office of General Counsel, to Chief Justice Christine M. Durham at the Utah Supreme Court, and to Judge Dee V. Benson at the Utah Federal District Court, before joining Ray Quinney & Nebeker, P.C. in Salt Lake City. After working in both the judicial and private sector, she joined Utah State University in 2015.

McKinney earned a B.S. from Utah State University in Political Science and Journalism; and then went on to earn a J.D. from the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law.

The following is the transcript of an interview that McKinney conducted with Utah State Today.

Utah State Today: At what age did you know you wanted to enter your current field and leadership role? What sparked your initial interest in your field?

Mika McKinney: I don't know that there was a specific moment when I said I want to be the general counsel of a university. It was really more of a meandering path for me. I've always been interested in education and public service. My parents are educators, and, looking back, I can now see different steps and events that led me to my current path.

As a student at USU, I was the research assistant for the president, Kermit Hall, on his academic research activities (Hall was a constitutional law expert). In that role I researched number of issues, including U.S. v. Morrison, one of the original Violence Against Women Act cases involving Virginia Tech University. Fast forward when I started at USU, one of many issues I'm really focused on is addressing USU's programs and activities related to preventing and appropriately responding to sexual misconduct. I can now see how some of these formative experiences helped me build towards my current role.

While at the University of Utah law school, I served as a research assistant to President Michael Young and clerked in the University of Utah’s general counsel's office. That's when I really started to get exposed to the broad range of issues that a university general counsel's office addresses. I was exposed to the important role the office plays in guiding the governance of the institution, ensuring students' rights, ensuring university compliance, and a whole host of other issues.

I then went into private practice and, as an outside counselor, I worked on several university matters and really enjoyed the experience. I feel like my path was just being steered towards my current role. And, when my predecessor at USU retired, USU reached out to me, asked me to apply for the position. The rest is history, and here I am.

UST: Were there specific individuals or events that inspired and influenced your career choices?

MM: I've been really fortunate; I've had a lot of good mentors. I worked as a clerk for Dee Benson, who was the U.S. District Court judge and a very close mentor. I always found his career path interesting, because he didn’t follow the route that many other lawyers take. He and I would talk a lot about his different professional experiences and how they shaped and made his legal career distinct. When Utah State University reached out to me, he was the first person I called to talk about whether I should make the jump from private practice.

I also clerked for Christine Durham, the Chief Justice for the Utah Supreme Court, the first female justice at the Utah Supreme Court. I was always really inspired by her. She was very focused on public service, and those conversations and her mentorship really pushed me and steered my path toward public service. I was also lucky to work with Olene Walker, the first female governor of the state of Utah, so I've had a chance to work with many trailblazers. These leaders are enormously inspiring, and I think about them a lot when there are obstacles that we face as a university or that I face in my career, and the way that they both served as trailblazers for so many other women and other lawyers. These women have persevered and opened doors for many people.

UST: What is some advice you have been given that helped you on your journey? What advice would you give to other young people who are aspiring to follow their passion?

MM: When I meet with students who want to talk about a career in the law or what their opportunities are, my advice is to follow their own path. I think many of us believe there is this set linear path, and if you take step A, then door one will open; if you take step B, door two will open. However, I don’t think career paths work that way, and it's important to chart your own course in an organic way. It prevents us from becoming disenchanted when we try to map out the next 20 years, because things will never go how we think they're going to go, and new opportunities and obstacles will come up.

UST: What is a major project or initiative you are currently working on in your current field and leadership role?

MM: One of the projects I'm really interested in right now, and I find it fascinating, is bolstering USU's approach and policy system related to free speech. This is something our office has been working on for some time, well before the Board of Higher Education released two resolutions on the topic, but it has certainly been elevated because of that. Issues of free expression and free speech have always been an interest of mine. Even as a student at Utah State, I was very interested in free speech, and that was the issue that I spoke out about as a student. I even helped persuade the university to change some of its practices.

Fast-forward, I'm now in my current role working on these issues, and I think it’s extremely important for this moment in time to preserve the ability for all members of our campus community to have space to express themselves and have a robust exchange of ideas. Preserving free speech and academic freedom is critically important, and it's an issue that there's a lot of pressure on across the nation.

UST: What inspired you about your current field (or position) and leadership role?

MM: I care about what I do. I'm a USU alum. I think about when I was a student, how important education is, and the opportunities my degree and my experience at Utah State made available to me. In my office, I have photos that I look at all the time, of me and my college roommates in our graduation robes and regalia. This motivates me to keep working on challenging issues and always try to make the university a better place for everybody. I love this place. It inspires me.


Isaiah Jones
Senior Director
Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion
(435) 797-3116


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