Professor Diane Orentlicher's passion for teaching came as a surprise.
"Teaching claimed me more than I did it," she says with a soft laugh. "I discovered serendipitously that I enjoyed it." The year was 1985. She was serving as deputy director of the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights and was asked to teach a course at Harvard. The job meant a once-a-week commute from Manhattan to Cambridge, a hurdle that became immaterial after the first day.
"That day I discovered why people love teaching," she says. "I loved engaging the classroom in the realm of ideas."
Other teaching opportunities followed, and during those years Prof. Orentlicher furthered her own education by serving with human rights organizations and even becoming an expert witness at human rights trials. These hands-on activities would give added heft to her teaching when she joined Washington College of Law, American University, in 1992.
"In both my teaching and writing - as well as in my extracurricular activities - I tend to be drawn to issues that are deeply consequential and intellectually challenging," she says. "A career in academia gives me the opportunity to explore a range of scholarly disciplines, from sociology to history and political science, for insights into some of the most important and vexing issues of the day."
Those issues include international legal responses to mass atrocity and the legal and political aspects of ethnic identity and conflict. While such interests were present during Prof. Orentlicher's student days at Columbia, they were fanned into flame when she took classes with Professors Lou Henkin and Jack Greenberg '48 and would eventually move her from the position of student to colleague.
"They were the only two professors I sought out when I was a law student. I went out of my way to introduce myself because I admired the work they had done," she recalls.
Later, when Prof. Henkin and Dean David Leebron decided to transform their course materials into a case book, Prof. Henkin asked if she would like to join the effort. The proverbial "offer she couldn't refuse" is the book Human Rights, published in 1999, and it gave her the opportunity to collaborate with her former professor, whom she calls "an intellectual giant in the field of international human rights law."
Described by the Washington Diplomat as "one of the world's leading authorities on human rights law and war crimes tribunals," Prof. Orentlicher now has a strong reputation in her own right. Still, she continues to thrive within the context of academia as a teacher when she identifies the greatest benefit of the international program at Washington College of Law as being "the outstanding mix of students from every region of the globe, many of whom are engaged in cutting-edge legal efforts in their own countries."
Yet, to be a teacher is also to be forever a student. Last year, Prof. Orentlicher was a visiting scholar in the newly established program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University. In the absence of a full teaching load, she was able to begin her second book, an exploration of emerging challenges in the field of international criminal law.