Each year, students from all Creighton University colleges and schools nominate exemplary professors for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Award for Teaching Achievement, sponsored by the Creighton Students Union. This year, it was one of the School of Law’s own who took home the award – professor Kenneth J. Melilli, JD.
Nominees must demonstrate a high level of competence in their field and be able to present subject matter in interesting and effective ways. They must inspire and serve students and the University and have considerable interest and concern for students as individuals. For his gift of spreading his expansive knowledge in innovative and enjoyable ways to every student and for the high standards of “eloquence and detail” that he holds himself to, Melilli was selected as the 46th recipient of this prestigious award.
His career in law has taken him from the New York University Law School to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. He later served as the assistant United States attorney in Washington, D.C.
His teaching career began in 1987 at the Albany (N.Y.) School of Law, where he became close friends with another faculty member at the school, Pat Borchers. Borchers eventually moved on to become the associate dean at Albany and then moved to Omaha to become the dean of Creighton’s School of Law. He later invited Melilli to come visit.
“Pat Borchers told me that he thought I would like coming out here, because he knew that I really valued teaching, as does he, and he represented to me that Creighton was a school where I would be very comfortable because the faculty saw its mission primarily as teaching students,” Melilli said. “And he was right, it is a different place than most law schools, because it values teaching. It is the priority of the faculty. That’s how I’ve always felt about it, and it is a much nicer environment to come to work when your colleagues have the same values as you, in terms of teaching, and that is why I’m at Creighton.”
Since joining Creighton in 2000, Melilli has become an integral part of the law school’s faculty, teaching Criminal Law and Cross-Examination, Criminal Procedure, Evidence, Negotiation, Torts I and II, and Trial Team. Trial Team is both a class and a team that he coaches.
He is known for his extensive knowledge of some of the most challenging aspects of law. He’s also known as one who doesn’t back down to adversity and leads by example, emboldening students to be the best they can be. His ability and desire to make boring topics fun is evidenced by his jokes, his songs, his inclusivity and his genuine passion for those he encounters.
One nominator said it is “impossible not to feel envious of Professor Melilli’s boundless intelligence and inexhaustible sense of humor.” His students put him in a category of his own, unique to his ability and desire to “live and breathe his subjects.”
He’s also coached several Moot Court teams, which he regularly takes to an interscholastic competition in New York. Three of his Creighton Moot Court teams have won national championships.
Melilli said the importance of these competitions, especially in terms of preparing law students for courtroom careers, is significant.
“The most important thing is that these people are the handful of people who graduate from law school and really can go right into a courtroom and try a case,” he said. “Very few law students are capable of doing that. So I would say I am proud of the students who have done well at the competitions, but I’m mostly proud of the students who, as a result of that process, have graduated from Creighton and have careers in which they are doing great work in courtrooms.”
Melilli views his overall service to the students as an obligation to their future clients. He says that being a lawyer is a great responsibility, and being a teacher who helps produce lawyers is a major part of that responsibility.
“As long as my students are doing everything they can to be good lawyers to service their future clients, then I feel like I’m in a partnership with my students and that we are engaged in a process which will be part of the service to them,” he said. “People who do not devote themselves to learning everything they can in law school are compromising the welfare of their clients.
“I, as well as my colleagues here on the faculty, try to do everything we can to help students to become the best lawyers they can be because we all have an eye on these clients they will have in the future, and we all have an obligation to represent them as best as possible.”