Lecturer Retires After Nearly 50 Years of Teaching

January 24, 2011

David Isbell, the Law School's longest-serving lecturer, taught his final class last semester after nearly a half century as an adjunct faculty member.

David Isbell
David Isbell

Isbell, senior counsel at Covington & Burling, started teaching what is now the civil liberties seminar in 1962. In November, after a career in which he taught under nine deans, he presided over his final seminar.

"I've loved teaching that seminar," Isbell said. "I would keep on doing it forever if I felt I could continue to teach at the level that I think the seminar requires."

Richard Merrill, an emeritus professor and former Law School dean, said Isbell's lengthy tenure is a tribute to his enthusiasm for the subject and to students' appreciation for his skill and effort.

"He displayed unique dedication to the venture — as had his senior partner, Charlie Horsky, who, at the request of Dean [F.D.G.] Ribble, created a seminar on civil rights law that he taught each year until he was summoned to government service. In a real sense, Isbell felt he owed it to Charlie to continue the course as long as students remained committed," Merrill said.

Horsky gave up doing the seminar when he went to the White House to serve as an adviser to the president. He asked Isbell, who was then a mid-level associate at Covington but had spent two years as an assistant staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, whether he would be willing to take over the seminar.

"I said 'Would I ever!'" Isbell said.

Professor Paul Stephan '77 was one of Isbell's students in the fall of 1976. Isbell graded entirely on classroom participation, and employed a teaching methodology that required students to confront their assumptions and learn how to construct arguments, Stephan said.

"It's been 35 years since I took the course and I still remember it vividly," he said.

Though Isbell was a gifted practitioner, "the seminar was not a toolkit" course focused solely on the development of practical skills, Stephan said.

"The course was about taking very fundamental ideas seriously, and I think Dave enjoyed doing that with students," Stephan said.

Isbell described the seminar as involving the interplay between individual rights and the interests, both public and private, that may weigh against the recognition of those rights, as well as the constitutional doctrines potentially applicable to the interplay of those private and public interests.

Throughout its history, the seminar focused mainly on U.S. Supreme Court decisions. But the subject matters taken up in the seminar broadened somewhat, and the seminar's title was altered to refer to civil liberties rather than civil rights.

"The particular subjects taken up in the seminar have also changed as the law in various areas affecting individual rights developed to reflect a changing world," Isbell said, pointing to the proliferation of new law — constitutional, statutory and regulatory — in the wake of 9/11 and the war on terrorism.

Merrill, who first got to know Isbell while assisting him on a case as a young associate at Covington and Burling, said students benefited both from Isbell's command of the subject material and from his interrogatory lecturing style.

"To participate effectively — and impress the teacher — students had to be thoroughlyprepared and eager to engage in debate," Merrill said.

Over the years, Isbell watched the Law School change, both in the make-up of its students and faculty and its physical location, from Clark Hall to the current David A. Harrison III Law Grounds. Some aspects, however, remained constant, Isbell said.

"A really striking thing about Virginia is that everybody is so nice. It's a very friendly atmosphere," Isbell said. 'The seminar, of course, is an elective, so I don't necessarily get a cross-section of the student body, but I do get people who are interested in the subject matter, and the discussions we have are lively and I always find them interesting. I often get new insights on cases that are already familiar to me."

Isbell also has fond recollections of the Law School outside of the classroom. One such memory involved a large mural at the entry to Clark Hall that depicts several figures in a state of undress.

Isbell recalled once entering the school on Valentine's Day to see that "a student had decorated the mural by pasting large red hearts in all the strategic spots," he said.

"That was a wonderful bit of wit."

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