Jewish World Review May 27, 2003 / 25 Iyar, 5763
John H. Fund
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
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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©2001, John H. Fund