2015 Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching
Jessica Bulman-Pozen, a leading expert in federalism, administrative law, and constitutional law, is the recipient of the 2015 Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching awarded by this year’s graduates.
Introduction by Madiba K. Dennie ’15
Friends, family, and faculty, my name is Madiba Dennie, and it is my privilege today to present the Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching to Professor Jessica Bulman-Pozen.
Professor Bulman-Pozen, or JBP as she is affectionately called, joined Columbia’s faculty in 2012—the same year that our class came to Columbia. And the Class of 2015 is exceptionally fortunate to have had JBP for all three years of law school. Professor Bulman-Pozen’s list of accomplishments is as long as her hair. She is breathtakingly smart, and, as a young woman, she has already soared to the top of a male-dominated profession. That alone is a notable achievement. Professor Bulman-Pozen is also a highly effective educator. JBP provides students with remarkably quick and detailed feedback, even while on maternity leave. She sets the benchmark for responsiveness to students’ needs.
I’ve had the opportunity to take two classes with JBP. One of these was “Admin,” because, like most law students, I’m just a little bit masochistic. The other class was Anti-Discrimination, because, like most law students who are members of marginalized communities, I recognized that I needed to carve out a space in law for self-love. It was so important to me that JBP recognized that, too. Professor Bulman-Pozen’s teaching and scholarship help prepare us to grapple with the injustices that surround us and actively confront structural oppression, and we are all better for it.
Professor Bulman-Pozen’s commitment to these ideals influences her interactions with students. JBP reaches out to all her students, especially women and people of color, and encourages them to strive for the most prestigious legal positions. JBP did away with the practice of professors calling on students using “mister” or “miss,” acknowledging the discomfort it caused for gender-nonconforming students. Instead, she calls us “counselor,” embracing the tradition’s goal of formality and respect, while appreciating the diversity of her students. In taking her students and their needs seriously, Professor Bulman-Pozen makes Columbia a better place.
JBP is the best of legal education, doing the critically important task of ensuring new lawyers are armed with the tools to respond to injustices, such as rampant police brutality, the denial of equal rights to LGBTQ persons, the rollback of reproductive rights, and worldwide oppression of immigrants. As the law continues to uphold and reproduce inequalities, law students must learn to interrogate and dismantle unjust power structures, and JBP teaches us how to question and challenge such laws, how to make them better, and how to make the country and the world better.
I have no doubt that Professor Bulman-Pozen is one of the best people future lawyers can learn from. In the past three years, JBP has been a role model, not just for me, but for countless other students. The Class of 2015 has learned so much from her example, and we are incredibly grateful.
Professor Bulman-Pozen, if you would please join me up here. We want to honor Professor Bulman-Pozen today for contributing to our collective understanding of how law shapes and informs access to justice. It is this contribution, on top of her brilliance and effectiveness as an educator, that truly makes her deserving of the Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching.
Remarks by Associate Professor Jessica Bulman-Pozen
Thank you, Madiba, and thank you to the Class of 2015 for this terrific honor. I’m delighted to have a chance to talk with you and your rightfully proud family and friends today, although I confess that since our magical Dean of Students shared news of the Reese Prize with me, I have fretted over what I could say that might be of use to you. Turning to my husband for some reassurance, I thought I was in luck when he said, “You have something big going for you.” I waited for the compliment. “Nobody expects graduation speeches to be any good,” he told me.
Lowering expectations—not the worst life advice you could receive, but clearly not advice befitting graduates of one of the world’s finest law schools. What would be such advice? Over the past few months, lots of useful but not graduation-worthy tips have come to mind, like: pause before you hit send and remember that your snarky email will someday be read by a first-year associate doing doc review. Or: don’t say “this is probably a stupid question,” as so many of you have told me at the podium. Not because there’s no such thing as a stupid question, as you may have heard. There are plenty. But if you have the self-awareness to think of adding that preface, you are not about to ask one. And none of your male colleagues is starting a sentence that way.
Some of the advice I’ve contemplated is decidedly graduation-worthy, but clichéd for good reason. I trust you don’t need me to tell you that you didn’t get where you are by yourself. Many of you owe a particular debt to the people sitting in the tents alongside you—and I join you in this because my parents are here, too. I’ve long known I cannot sufficiently express my appreciation to my mom and dad, but let me at least take this rare opportunity to thank them publicly for all they have given me (and for sitting through two law school graduations).
Plenty of other advice has come to mind as well, but I don’t want to take my few minutes with you today to tell you to read fiction; not to rely on your memory; to talk to people you disagree with; or even not to wait to have children until it’s the “right time” for your career, because it will never be the “right time” and it’s far more important. These are all conversations for another day. And I hope we will keep having these conversations, especially now that you can just call me by my first name and not worry about how on earth to pronounce Bulman-Pozen.
What I want to say to you today is this: in the years ahead, don’t forget why you came to law school; your younger self is wiser than you think. So many of you sought out a J.D. or LL.M. because you saw a world in need of transformation and knew that law was the tool. Or, you thought you knew that.
With its cold-calls and final exams and bizarre hypotheticals, law school always has a way of hiding the justice ball, so to speak. But for many of you, the defining moments of law school didn’t happen here at Columbia at all. They happened in Ferguson and Staten Island, in Cleveland and Baltimore, in vivid reminders of pervasive injustice and the law’s impotence or complicity.
Whether in these moments or others, you questioned whether law was the tool you had thought. Maybe your decision to come to CLS seemed naïve. Maybe you molted your idealism and assumed a cynical shell. I’m not going to tell you any doubt was misplaced. The law is a human system and so fallible. But it is a human system and so what we—what you—make it.
As lawyers, we’re good at providing justifications, at thinking up plausible rationalizations and explaining what is. It’s all too easy for this intellectual habit to become a moral one. Resist that. Take your new know-how with you, by all means—your ability to cut to the heart of a dispute, to solve esoteric conundrums, to make compelling arguments for implausible positions—but please don’t think you were wrong to see a world needing your help and your legal education as vital. Although law alone will never remake society, it is our most powerful language for pursuing liberty and equality, fairness and justice. And you are its future. Whether you litigate or legislate, whether you devote your career to the public interest or devote billable hours to pro bono work, whether you hold government accountable from the outside or make it better from the inside, whether you hold corporations accountable from the outside or make them better from the inside—we are counting on you. I trust you will keep making us proud.
Thank you again for this tremendous honor and for the privilege of being your teacher. My warmest congratulations, graduates!