GW Law Celebrates 150 Years

Events in conjunction with Alumni Weekend feature distinguished alumni, panels on the future of higher education and a look at the school’s history.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) speaks at the GW Law Fall Dean's Dinner.
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) speaks at the GW Law Fall Dean's Dinner. (Photo courtesy GW Law)
September 28, 2015

By Ruth Steinhardt

The George Washington University Law School kicked off its sesquicentennial anniversary this weekend, welcoming alumni to the university’s Alumni Weekend with complimentary activities designed to celebrate their alma mater’s past and look toward its future. These included the awarding of the Dean’s Medallion to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), J.D. ’64.

George Washington President Steven Knapp, Sen. Harry Reid and GW Law Dean Blake Morant. (Photo courtesy GW Law.)

The oldest law school in Washington, D.C., GW Law was established in 1865 as the Columbian College Department of Law. Its first class comprised 60 students—all white, all male—from 22 of the then 37 states. In the 150 years since, GW Law has become a highly ranked, diverse institution. Its alumni include Belva Ann Lockwood, one of the first woman lawyers in the United States, and Patricia Roberts Harris, the first African American woman to serve as a member of a U.S. president’s cabinet and the first to serve as a U.S. ambassador.

On Thursday, Mr. Morant moderated the Presidential Summit on the Challenges Facing Higher Education. The panel featured Chris Howard, president of Hampton-Sydney College; Phoebe Haddon, chancellor of Rutgers University, Camden; and Gregory Williams, former president of the City College of New York. George Washington President Steven Knapp introduced the discussion, which centered on issues of affordability, competitiveness, globalization and access and success. Dr. Knapp noted that one method GW has chosen to address some of those challenges was becoming a test-optional institution.

“What was designed to be an egalitarian instrument—a way of identifying talent no matter what school an applicant came from—has now really become an instrument of inequality” due in part to the preparation opportunities available only to wealthy test-takers, Dr. Knapp said.

In an energetic and collegial conversation, panelists warned that to focus on any single one of those issues to the detriment of the others would be to lose focus on the larger picture and the ultimate purpose of higher education: developing critical thinking skills.

“It really pains me actually to hear people talking about workforce development or job-oriented training at a time when first-generation students are the huge majority of people who will be coming through our higher education institutions,” Dr. Haddon said. “Just when people need that [liberal arts] exposure, you don’t cut it off.”

On Friday, the Law School’s 150th Anniversary Luncheon was keynoted by Jerome Barron, former dean of GW Law and Harold H. Greene Emeritus Professor of Law. Mr. Barron reviewed the first century of the school’s history, which forms part of the subject of his book, “A Short History of The George Washington University Law School.” Highlighting changes since the school was founded, Mr. Barron read from an early 20th-century book that GW Law published as a recruitment tool: “Examinations are graded harshly, with the aim of weeding out the slothful and incompetent.”

After the luncheon, the school offered alumni tours of the Law School, including the Law Learning Center. Others attended a panel with GW Law Professors Gregory Maggs and Alan Morrison, who reviewed recent and upcoming Supreme Court cases for practitioners.

On Friday night, GW Law alumnus Sen. Reid received the Dean’s Medallion—the highest award a GW Law dean can bestow—at the GW Law Fall Dean’s Dinner.