Q & A with Academic Associate Dean Elizabeth Magill

October 12, 2009

M. Elizabeth Magill is the newly appointed academic associate dean. She recently answered questions about her new post, her scholarship and a range of other topics.

Liz Magill
M. Elizabeth Magill

What does the academic associate dean do?

The academic associate dean oversees Student Records and Student Affairs and puts together the curriculum. I also serve as an ex officio member of the committees that hire and promote faculty and the curriculum committee. Finally, I stand in for the dean on occasion when he is not available.

What are your goals as academic associate dean?

Well, what we have in my areas of responsibility is pretty terrific, so I would like to maintain what we have: This is a well-run institution that offers many classes and opportunities for students and we have an enviable sense of community. Our faculty is committed to scholarly excellence and first-rate teaching, we respect and admire one another, and students and faculty interact with one another in positive ways. I will look for any opportunities that I see to enrich the culture here along those lines.

What are your current research interests?

Right now, I am working on two short articles, one in administrative law and one in comparative constitutional law. I have a long-term project, which will one day be a book, about public law in the period between the middle of the 1960s and the middle of the 1970s. In that period, the legal profession changed. Congress created a new generation of regulatory agencies focused on health, safety and consumer's rights; and legal doctrine changed dramatically. We now think of the public law litigation that exploded in that period as completely normal, but actually it emerged in that period. I want to recapture that moment and explore why it happened when and how it did. Because he is such a critical figure in the story, my unofficial title for the project is "Ralph Nader and the Law." It conveys pretty well what it is about.

What is your favorite subject to teach and why?

Depends on the day you catch me. I pretty much like anything I am teaching at the moment. (Well, maybe not standing law.) I think there is nothing like the first month of constitutional law, where many students are exposed for the first time to a teacher who asks them to think very hard about why we should be committed to constitutionalism or the institution of judicial review. But then again, the first four weeks of administrative law are similar, when students encounter a government that looks nothing like the civics book version they thought we had and they see how the Supreme Court accommodated the administrative state. I'm teaching a seminar now with Jim Ryan on the last term of the Supreme Court and it's the most fun I've had in teaching in years. So, I guess I like them all. Interacting with students about the law is one of the best features of the job.

What's your favorite place to grade?

I favor Shenandoah Joe's because of the fantastic espresso. I am embarrassed to admit that I sometimes grade in my car because it is one of the few places I can't find things to distract myself from grading. When I'm grading in January, the cold also helps me keep my concentration.

Whose scholarship do you admire?

There are really too many to name. I'd have to say that my intellectual heroes are Nancy Cott, Bill Cronon and David Brion Davis, three historians whose work taught me so much when I was an undergraduate at Yale. And in law I guess I would have to say John Hart Ely. (I know, join the club.) In administrative law, I always learn from Jerry Mashaw and Tom Merrill. Should I go on? Everyone has their own taste in scholarship, but what I appreciate most is deep thought and insight. All of the scholars I've mentioned have that.

How do you decide whether a course should be offered at the Law School?

You'll have to ask me next spring when I start working on the curriculum. I think it will be straightforward.

What inspired you to be a lawyer/go to law school?

I knew I wanted to teach law when I came to law school. I thought seriously about studying history in graduate school, but decided I wanted to become a legal academic because my work could be connected to the everyday world and I would also have the capacity to advocate on behalf of others, a skill I really admire. As for why law school, I confess that I come from a family of lawyers. I would like to think it was a completely independent decision on my part to go to law school, but I am sure I was influenced by the example of the many members of my family who are happily (mostly happily) in the law. Our family gatherings are a little like law firm parties. Sad from one perspective, I suppose, but we're happy with it.

What course do you wish you had taken in law school/why? Or what do you see offered here now that you wish was available then?

I wish I'd taken jurisprudence and the legal history seminar that Barry Cushman and Chuck McCurdy teach. I also wish I'd taken at least one class on the UCC [Uniform Commercial Code]. I tried, but I just couldn't do it. But I should have!

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