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JUNE 2003
Volume 95, Issue 5

GRAPHIC:  Also in every issueFrom the President
It isn’t for everyone, but…

President Don M. Randel on what’s truly Chicago about the University’s Law School.

The Law School has celebrated its 100th anniversary this academic year. Events throughout the year culminated in reunions and a festive dinner at the Field Museum, attended by about 1,200 people, in early May. Even the Wall Street Journal took proper notice. Its eye-catching phrase was “a nirvana for nerds” (May 23, 2003).

If we had a high-priced public-relations firm on retainer, this is probably not the phrase they would have suggested. But the Journal article did capture something essential about the Law School—and, by extension, about the University. “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.” Just as important, the Journal observed, “The University of Chicago isn’t for everyone.”

There is much to be proud of deriving from the fact that, in fundamental ways, we are not like anyone else. Professor David Currie’s centennial toast to the Law School last October (see “Just Cause,” —Ed.) described its founding principles as follows:

President Harper had a different idea, based upon the heretical premise that lawyers should know something about the world around them. The laws, he said, cannot be understood “without a clear comprehension of the historical forces of which they are the product and of the social environment with which they are in living contact. A scientific study of law involves the related sciences of history, economics, philosophy—the whole field of man as a social being.”

Along the same lines Chicago attorney Adelbert Hamilton…urged the adoption of a curriculum that was ambitious, international, interdisciplinary, and comparative—including courses in jurisprudence, which he prophetically labeled elements of the law, and “social economics,” embracing “principles of economic production and distribution, principles of international trade and taxation… [and] the correlation of law with principles of sociology.”

The history of the Law School has been, and remains, true to this idea. The Law School’s embeddedness in the fabric of the University as a whole and thus its connectedness to other disciplines continues to set it apart. And its commitment to vigorous and serious debate from all quarters guarantees that its relationship to other disciplines is not a function of the winds of fashion but instead of the pursuit of ideas wherever they should lead.

For example, although the Law School created the study of law and economics and remains well known for this field, its faculty and alumni represent a wide variety of opinion on this and other topics. The list of distinguished faculty and alumni is long and their interests many. A visit to the Law School’s Web pages (which includes a history of the school, a bibliography of current faculty, and much else) will inspire not only its own graduates but anyone who cares about what the University of Chicago as a whole is and must continue to be.

As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, “Throughout its history, the Law School has focused on ideas and avoided fads.” This approach has made it the home of liberals and conservatives alike and has enabled contributions to a wide range of topics affecting how society should function. The consequences around the world, not merely in the United States, have been considerable. This is not about just cranking out a stream of lawyers. It is about being an intellectual community prepared to work very hard at thinking what the law is and ought to be in a world where justice is not a simple matter.

None of us can avoid thinking these days about the meaning of justice, both at home and abroad. We have been through a (“mercifully” does not sound quite right, but one gets the idea) short war, but peace remains somewhat distant. This fact compels us to think about justice for what and to whom, about the nation’s responsibility to notions of justice abroad, and about justice for people living in this country regardless of national origin, political views, and economic circumstance. We are compelled to think about what justice implies for a fundamental right to privacy. And having witnessed the great tax-cut debate and its resolution, we are bound to think about what justice means or ought to mean across the spectrum of the nation’s income distribution. These are just a few of the kinds of things that a Chicago education is good for thinking about. And that is because people at Chicago have been thinking about such things from the start.

“Nerds” is not the right word for us if it means people who are lost in pursuits that seem merely goofy in relation to life itself. But if it means people who understand and live by the principle that ideas matter and that only ideas can change the world for the better, then let us all sign up for it. And let us be proud that this is the kind of University we are and that lots of people seem to recognize it.


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