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Jewish World Review May 27, 2003 / 25 Iyar, 5763

John H. Fund

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Nerd Nirvana: Students are to the right of the faculty even at the U of Chicago | The University of Chicago's reputation as a bastion of intellectualism extends, naturally, to its law school, whose graduates are snapped up by firms seeking people who can think on their feet and say what they think, persuasively, on paper. But that also accounts for the school's reputation as a nirvana for nerds.

Earlier this month, the law school celebrated its centenary with an alumni reunion. The nerds had their revenge at the gala dinner at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, where they expressed quiet satisfaction in the school's record of accomplishments.

Portions of the constitutions of several former communist nations were written at the law school. Its law and economics program has produced a Nobel Prize winner, Ronald Coase, and administrations from Reagan to Clinton have issued executive orders balancing the costs and benefits of regulation based on the school's work. The tradable permits in pollution in the Clean Air Act of 1990 and the auction system for spectrum allocation used by the FCC were developed in part at Chicago. Prof. Richard Epstein's work on property rights has influenced several Supreme Court decisions.

Throughout its history, the law school has focused on ideas and avoided fads. When Ivy League law schools would not accept women, Chicago was happy to graduate Sophonisba Breckinridge in 1904. During the 1920s and '30s, when anti-Semitism was rampant in the Ivy League, Chicago was an oasis of universality. And when the Ivies' faculties were male bastions, the University of Chicago hired Soia Mentschikoff in 1951.

After the 1960s campus rebellions, it was hard to find law schools willing to harbor political conservatives or libertarian champions of the free market. But Chicago gave spots to future Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, future Attorney General Edward Levi and future federal appeals court judges Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook (both of whom still teach there). Their students have included Attorney General John Ashcroft, Federalist Society co-founder Lee Otis and Republican Sen. Jim Talent.

But Chicago's law school is also a congenial home to many liberals. The radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon has been a visiting professor for several years. Cass Sunstein, a noted liberal scholar, says he has never found a place "where the culture is more devoted to trying to get at truths." Everything is up for intellectual argument. "After the last campus Diversity Day, some students created a Competence Day celebration," he says with a laugh. He noted that no one ostracized them.

Nonetheless, Saul Levmore, the school's dean, made clear at the reunion that he backed the university's commitment to racial preferences. And unlike at some other law schools with a significant conservative voice, hardly an objection is heard from the faculty. Even the lion of libertarians, Richard Epstein, told me at lunch that it is "highly unlikely that elite institutions can migrate to a color-blind policy."

And while the country is becoming more conservative, it seems that the law school's long resistance to trendy campus fashions is weakening. During the reunion, the heads of several legal clinics sponsored by the law school met with alumni. After a spokesman for the MacArthur Justice Center explained how it files appeals for convicted criminals in death penalty and drug cases, he was challenged by an alumnus who wondered if their time could be better spent.

The student sheepishly admitted that most of the appeals were filed on hyper-technical grounds on behalf of "clearly guilty" defendants but that they presented a wonderful opportunity for students to practice law under the supervision of an attorney. The alumni I spoke to were clearly more interested in a university clinic designed to aid local entrepreneurs, supported by the Washington-based Institute for Justice.

Despite such generational clashes, the reunion revealed the affection and respect that the law school's graduates hold for it. Douglas Ginsburg, chief judge of the federal Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, flew to Chicago often during the 1990s to hold a legal-scholarship seminar, and he plans to do so again.

The University of Chicago isn't for everyone. The library is still full on Saturday nights, though now students are sometimes studying for offbeat seminars on sci-fi novels or the law in Shakespeare's plays. But those who study or teach there routinely say they wouldn't trade the experience for anything else. Small wonder that John D. Rockefeller, who put up the money to open the school, once called the University of Chicago "the best investment I ever made." It is still paying dividends today.

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05/16/03: GOPers gain in the land of Humphrey and Mondale
04/28/03: With the war won, it's time for Bush to master the Senate
04/04/03: Is "diversity" on campus even a goal worth pursuing?
03/05/03: Sunday morning with the BBC
02/28/03: Shut Up, They Explained: If you can censor this, thank a teacher
02/21/03: Unmitigated Gaul: Saddam isn't the only dictator with whom Jacques Chirac is cozy
02/18/03: Growing number of black officials breaking ranks by calling for a more honest approach to race relations
01/31/03: Half and Half: Republicans have achieved parity among American voters
11/11/02: Sobering Thoughts: The GOP's cup runneth over? No, it's half empty
10/31/02: Blue Gray: California's governor answers a Nobel Prize winner with obscenities
10/14/02: Bad Hair Day: Did Montana Dems exploit antigay prejudice?
10/11/02: The kill-everything senate
09/30/02: Schroeder did what it took to win--but at what cost to Germany?
08/22/02: Buh-Bye Bob, So Long Cynthia : No amount of shouting could've saved Barr or McKinney
07/29/02: GOP: Get Over Panic --- Dems are vulnerable on corporate scandals, too
07/17/02: Not Just an Average Joe: A black GOPer may give Rep. Eliot Engel a run for his money
07/15/02: The McCain Mutiny-II
07/01/02: Opening the Schoolhouse Door: The politicians can't stop school choice now
06/20/02: The Body' Bows Out --- American politics will be duller without Jesse Ventura
06/06/02: It's time for President Bush to stand up to California's senators
05/16/02: A Court Intrigue: Procedural funny business in a racial-preference case
05/14/02: Thin moral ice: New revelations from a skater's Stasi files recall an oppressive era
05/09/02: Newark, Zimbabwe!?
05/02/02: Will Terror Leave Us No Choice? Teachers unions try to use Sept. 11 as an excuse for bad schools
04/23/02: The New Nixon? Al Gore plots his comeback
04/16/02: 'I, Uh, I Have No Comment': A union plays dirty in opposing an antitax initiative
03/31/02: Don't Just Do Something, Stand There!: Filibusters can help the Senate GOP get things done
03/14/02: Red-Light District: It's time to draw the line on gerrymandering
02/21/02: Slippery Slope: Can Dick Riordan beat California's Democratic governor?
02/14/02: Reform School: The Shays-Meehan incumbency protection act
02/07/02: Arizona Highway Robbery: Politicians make a grab for campaign cash
01/31/02: Disfranchise Lassie: Even dogs can register to vote. We need election reform with teeth
01/17/02: Dr. King's Greedy Relations: Cashing in on a national hero's legacy
01/10/02: Oil of Vitriol
01/04/02: The little engine that couldn't--and the senators who don't want it to
12/24/01: E-mail and low-cost computers could be conduits for a learning revolution
12/13/01: How Gore could have really won
12/07/01: Let our students keep their cell phones
12/04/01: Why the White House gave the RNC chairman the boot
11/12/01: A Winsome Politician: She won an election in a majority-black district--and she's a Republican
11/01/01: Bush Avoids Politics at His Peril
10/30/01: Cocked Pit: Armed pilots would mean polite skies
10/24/01: Chicken Pox: Hardly anyone has anthrax, but almost everyone has anthrax anxiety
10/11/01: Will Rush Hear Again? New technology may make it possible
10/04/01: Three Kinds of pols
08/24/01: Lauch Out: Who'll replace Jesse Helms?
08/08/01: Tome Alone: Clinton's book will probably end up on the remainder table
08/03/01: Of grubbing and grabbing: Corporation$ and local government$ perfect "public use"
07/31/01: Affairs of State: The Condit case isn't just about adultery. It's about public trust and national security
07/14/01: The First Amendment survives, and everyone has someone to blame for the failure of campaign reform
07/12/01: He's Still Bread: Despite what you've heard, Gary Condit isn't toast --- yet
07/12/01: Passing Lane: Left-wing attacks help boost John Stossel's and Brit Hume's audiences
06/25/01: Man vs. Machine: New Jersey's GOP establishment is doing everything it can to stop Bret Schundler
06/15/01: A Schundler Surprise? Don't count out "the Jack Kemp of New Jersey"
06/06/01: Memo to conservatives: Ignore McCain and maybe he'll go away
05/29/01: Integrity in Politics? Hardly. Jim Jeffords is no Wayne Morse
05/22/01: Davis' answer to California's energy crisis? Hire a couple of Clinton-Gore hatchet men
05/07/01: Prematurely declaring a winner wasn't the networks' worst sin in Florida
04/23/01: How to fix the electoral process --- REALLY!
04/11/01: A conservative hero may mount a California comeback
03/30/01: Can the GOP capture the nation's most closely balanced district?
03/09/01: Terminated
03/06/01: Leave well enough alone
02/22/01: Forgetting our heroes
02/15/01: In 1978 Clinton got a close look at the dangers of selling forgiveness
02/12/01: Clinton owes the country an explanation --- and an appology
02/06/01: How Ronald Reagan changed America
01/16/01: Why block Ashcroft? To demoralize the GOP's most loyal voters
01/15/01: Remembering John Schmitz, a cheerful extremist
12/29/00: Why are all Dems libs pickin' on me?
Dubya's 48% mandate is different than Ford's
12/13/00: Gore would have lost any recount that passed constitutional muster
11/13/00: The People Have Spoken: Will Gore listen?
10/25/00: She's really a Dodger
09/28/00: Locking up domestic oil?
09/25/00: Hillary gives new meaning to a "woman with a past"
09/21/00: Ignore the Polls. The Campaign Isn't Over Yet

©2001, John H. Fund