Fran Ansley, Working With and Beside 

She was one of those rare intellectuals whose energy for activism matched her enthusiasm for scholarship and instruction—who was as comfortable working alongside members of the community as she was standing in a lecture hall. 

Fran Ansley (UT Law ’79) wasn’t content to theorize about what justice should look like, but rather she faced injustice head-on in the region and beyond, standing side-by-side with the people who were most affected. She shared her expertise without patronizing, and served with a genuine desire to listen to, learn from and understand those she met. And even while she spoke strongly and clearly about society’s most pressing concerns, she maintained a sparkle of wit and down-to-earth humility.  

When pancreatic cancer ended her life on January 15, 2024, the loss echoed through the University of Tennessee College of Law and across East Tennessee. 

Entrance into law 

Originally from Atlanta, Ansley had lived in this region since 1972. With her husband, Jim Sessions, she got to know the history of East Tennessee and the struggles of its people. While participating in local coalitions such as the Southern Appalachian Ministry in Higher Education and the East Tennessee Energy Group during this period, Ansley also researched and published on class and labor rights—which would remain career-long concentrations along with issues of race and immigration.  

In 1976, her path crossed that of Dean Rivkin, then a newly hired assistant professor at the UT College of Law. Besides sharing some common interests and work experiences relating to poverty in Appalachia, both Rivkin and Ansley had children the same age. Their families soon became friends. 

“Fran was so incredibly talented and smart and multidimensional, right from the get-go I could see that she was going to excel in whatever she did,” says Rivkin, a College of Law professor emeritus since 2017. “I remember talking with her about her interest in going to law school—and then there she was at the College of Law.” 

Rivkin says that even though Ansley was a student of his in the College of Law’s Legal Clinic, there were times when he probably learned more from her. He sought her assistance on multiple occasions, once asking her to co-write a brief for a case he argued before the Tennessee Supreme Court. He credits Ansley’s involvement on that case as a significant part of its success. 

“It was very evident to me that Fran could see aspects of a problem or case and see context as well as anybody I had ever met up to that point—and since that point,” he says. 

After earning her J.D. in 1979, Ansley served at the College of Law Legal Clinic as a staff attorney focused on economic development. She was an associate at the Knoxville firm of Gilreath & Associates for five years before joining Meares, Morton, Meares and Ansley, based in Maryville. Then in 1988, an associate professor position opened at the College of Law, and Ansley was hired. 

Welcoming and empowering 

As a professor, Ansley embodied what it means to be a mentor. She forged connections with her students, encouraged and guided them in their pursuits, demonstrated through her own continued work in the community, and then challenged students to go and do likewise. For many College of Law alums, Ansley was a major inspiration.  

Maha Ayesh, director of experiential learning and assistant professor at Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law, attended the UT College of Law from 2003 to 2006. 

“I remember that Fran was the first professor to ask me why I wanted to go to law school and what I hoped to do, and the first person to whom I felt comfortable admitting that I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, but that I was more motivated by helping people than I was by having a career,” Ayesh says. “She was also the only person in law school I can remember being comfortable talking to about my identity and experiences as a Palestinian-American Muslim.” 

Besides feeling truly welcome and less isolated at the college thanks to Ansley, Ayesh took several of the professor’s courses as a 2L and 3L—classes that reinforced the social ideals that had drawn Ayesh toward law school. One course in particular allowed Ayesh to collaborate with her professor on immigration issues and see Ansley’s philosophy of advocacy in action. 

“In our Community Legal Education course, Fran had us working with community groups to provide legal training and information,” Ayesh says. “Through this class, I got the opportunity to be exposed to the activists and organizations advocating for immigrant rights in Tennessee, which was a cause near and dear to Fran. I got to see how her focus was not necessarily on representing people with legal issues but on empowering them to organize and advocate for themselves.” 

Grassroots leadership  

Ansley retired from teaching in 2007, but as professor emerita she continued to be an influential presence at the college—even a decade later, when Eric Amarante joined the faculty.  

“I came to UT in 2017 to be a community lawyer—primarily transactional law, community economic development, nonprofit work,” says Amarante, now associate professor. “I was hoping before I got here to set up some meetings with some folks who could potentially be allies and community partners. People I talked to said, ‘You’ve got to talk to Fran.’” 

Amarante already knew of Ansley from some of her many publications. He introduced himself to her via email, and she replied with a generous list of recommendations—numerous books, articles, songs and even movies.  

“She basically said, ‘Before I introduce you to folks, here are some things you should know about East Tennessee, about Appalachia, and the history here.’ It was a good introduction to the type of person she was. She was caring about me but also about the people in East Tennessee that I was going to work with, making sure I was going to be as prepared as possible.” 

Ansley emphasized that one really needs to know the region and the people in order to be able to address their issues, and that efforts needed to be grassroots and not dictated from outsiders. Finding out what the people want and helping equip them to solve problems themselves is more effective than someone with an advanced degree coming in and thinking they have all the answers.  

“She dedicated her entire career to starting from the bottom, never approaching a problem top-down, but finding the individuals whose lives you’re trying to make better, and making sure they’re at the very first meeting and are driving the ultimate goals,” Amarante says. “She was forever dedicated to keeping everyone in the room honest and focused on the right people.” 

Although “community organizer” was never her official title, Ansley often filled that role. She thrived on uniting people around a particular cause, and whenever she learned of worthy clients that lacked representation, Ansley was adept at recruiting other lawyers to help. 

“Fran was passionate about social justice—immigration, economic development, racial justice, areas like that,” Rivkin says. “But she was most passionate about collaborating with people around issues, and I don’t necessarily mean people in law either. Fran would often serve as a liaison between those groups and lawyers, and had a really keen ability to convince lawyers to take on clients who needed legal help. You couldn’t turn her down when she asked for help; you knew she meant it.” 

Jobs with Justice, Allies of Knoxville’s Immigrant Neighbors, and United Campus Workers are just a few of the groups with which Ansley partnered over the years. 

Ansley’s legacy 

In April 2023, the College of Law hosted a special Tennessee Law Review symposium, “Working toward Justice on Difficult Ground,” organized to honor Ansley, who by then was about 19 months into her cancer diagnosis. Her opening remarks underscored that the event was “for me, but it’s not supposed to be about me.” She urged attendees to remain focused on the work ahead. 

After recounting moments from her past that had steered her toward collective social action, Ansley remarked: “Because we stand here today in a law school, I will just observe that much more could be said about how few lawyers are well equipped to work with and beside social movements.” 

Ansley had long ago devoted herself to working with and beside, and equipping others to do the same. Now months after her death, those who knew and collaborated with her are still measuring her life’s impact.  

“She was really the conscience of the law school, in my estimation,” Rivkin says. “Fran was always, let’s say, on the front lines, but in a way that brought people together and didn’t divide them.” 

At the College of Law, Ansley was instrumental in cultivating an environment where students of all backgrounds are welcomed and included. 

“Professors like Fran are essential to attracting and keeping a diverse group of students; students who are diverse not just in their demographic identities, but also in terms of their beliefs, thoughts, aspirations, and motivations,” Ayesh says. “Without Fran and some other professors with whom I connected, law school would have been a much more isolating experience for me.” 

And colleagues who once relied on her wise counsel still, in her absence, contemplate what Ansley would do before they take action in a given situation. 

“Well before Fran passed, whenever I was faced with a big question, I’d sometimes pick up the phone and call her and say, ‘Hey Fran, what should I do?’ And we’d talk it out,” Amarante says. “Now that she’s gone, that hasn’t left; and in fact, it may have increased. If there is a major decision, I still ask, ‘What would she do?’ I use that as a challenge, and I believe it’s making me a better person.”