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Behind the Columns

bc law dean john h. garvey

Have a Seat
Why chairs are so important to a law school

John Garvey

I remember as if it were yesterday my first day of law school. It embarrasses me to recall how curious I was to find out what a tort was. To a nonlawyer the word evokes raspberry, almond, and puff pastry. To a lawyer it’s something else. It’s like that with academics and chairs. People outside the academy think a chair is a moveable piece of furniture designed to accommodate one person and consisting of a seat, back, and sometimes arms. For people on the inside it’s something else. Boston College Law School has just named George Brown as the inaugural holder of the Robert F. Drinan, SJ, Chair. What does that mean?

I think it actually does have something to do with sitting. It’s an ancient custom to speak of a seat or chair as a position of authority. The pope sits in the chair of Peter, and speaks infallibly when he speaks ex cathedra (“from the chair”). There are secular versions of the same idea. We speak of judges sitting on the bench, committee chairs, county seats, and so on. The earliest endowed chairs were given to clerics, though, and they taught with authority on matters of faith and morals. John Fisher was the first to hold Lady Margaret’s Professorship in Divinity, the oldest chair at Cambridge University (1502). Henry VIII established Regius professorships at Oxford and Cambridge in Divinity, Greek, and Hebrew. Nowadays we have chairs in a much wider range of subjects (the University of Southern California has one for the study of electronic gaming). But the notion of authority has persisted even though we have dispensed with its ecclesiastical connotations. A professor who sits in an endowed chair is unusually learned and distinguished even in the company of very well qualified academics. What he or she has to say is worth listening to.

I haven’t said anything yet about the “endowed” aspect of these chairs, but this is what makes them so coveted. Think about it in the abstract. An endowment that produces enough income to pay a professor’s salary offers a permanent form of job security, and freedom from dependence on tuition revenues. This doesn’t mean the chairholder no longer teaches. He will, if anything, be more interesting to students. But it guarantees the freedom to pursue the course he finds most engrossing. This is also what the donor wants. People create endowments for the same reason they build churches and museums, sponsor scientific prizes, and support musicians. They are the idealists among us. They believe there really are such things as justice, truth, and beauty, and they want to join with the university to find them. They wisely get behind the very best faculty to pursue their aims.

This partnership is what builds a great university. It may surprise you to learn that many members of the Class of 2006 already earn more than most of their teachers. Our faculty are an exceptionally well qualified group of people. They could leave academic life tomorrow and make much more money at another job. But people do not choose the academy for the pay. They care about three things: freedom to pursue their ideas, a forum to teach them in, and the resources to do both. Endowments make these things possible. We need them to hold onto our best faculty, and to attract talent from other schools.

The gifts necessary to create these endowments are significant. In the university’s last campaign it cost $1 million to create a chair. In the next campaign it will be $2 million; more, if the donor wishes to establish a new position rather than endow an existing one. But think what such an endowment can do.

After five hundred years there still is a Lady Margaret Professor at Cambridge. And John Fisher, the man who first held her chair, is now a saint, canonized with Thomas More in 1935.