2016 Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching
Olatunde Johnson—a nationally renowned expert on civil procedure, legislation, and anti-discrimination law—is the recipient of the 2016 Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching. The award is presented annually by the graduating class of Columbia Law School.
Introduction: Kate Morris ’16
Good afternoon everyone. My name is Kate Morris and I’m so delighted to be here, on behalf of the Class of 2016, presenting the Willis L. M. Reese Teaching Prize to Professor Olati Johnson.
Like many of us, I first got to know Professor Johnson in her Civil Procedure class. I think my classmates would agree that if a professor can teach us the ins and outs of Erie and Rule 12(b)(6) and win the annual teaching prize, then she must be pretty good.
Most of us came to law school because we wanted to learn about justice—not really because we wanted to learn procedure. But Professor Johnson taught us that your rights aren’t worth much if the procedure for enforcing them isn’t fair. Her lessons in procedure came in handy later in law school, when I represented a prisoner in federal court. Lo and behold, my clinic partner and I found ourselves threatened with a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Drawing on our knowledge of procedure, we avoided having the case dismissed, and we ended up winning a good settlement for our client. I realized what Professor Johnson had told us all along: that with the right tools—and a good grasp of procedure—you can use the law to fight for what you believe in.
Professor Johnson came to teaching after a distinguished career as an advocate. Just two years out of law school, she was clerking at the Supreme Court for Justice John Paul Stevens. She then worked as a civil rights lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU; and also in government, as counsel to Senator Ted Kennedy. Her prolific and distinguished scholarship has influenced the national conversation on many areas of anti-discrimination, fair housing, and equal protection.
Professor Johnson’s extraordinary accomplishments are testament to how committed she is to everything she does. Her dedication is obvious to all of us. In fact, just a few months ago, I saw her walking down the hallway wheeling a suitcase, and I asked if she was going on vacation. Of course, the answer was no: She was taking so many casebooks home with her that she had to put them in a suitcase and wheel them along behind her.
Professor Johnson is not simply a hard-working professor inside the classroom. She is also the most generous mentor to any student who seeks her guidance. She’s particularly known for her mentorship of public interest students, women, and students of color. When I was preparing this speech, one student contacted me to explain how important this was to her. She said: “During my time at Columbia, Professor Johnson has been a great professor, mentor, and inspiration. In the classroom, she challenged and encouraged me to speak up and share my opinion at times when I was nervous to speak out. Most importantly, Professor Johnson’s presence on campus as one of the few black female professors has been incredibly inspiring and encouraging to me as a black woman navigating law school.”
Of course, we’re not the only ones who recognize Professor Johnson as an outstanding educator, advocate, and role model. Yesterday at Commencement, we celebrated her receiving the University-wide Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching. Never before has someone won both the Willis Reese Prize and the Presidential Award in the same year. It’s a remarkable achievement, and we’re delighted to celebrate both awards today. Of course, ours was announced first, which is proof that the Class of 2016 knew all along what it took the University a few more weeks to figure out. Plus, this award is extra special, because it comes from us, your students.
On behalf of the Class of 2016, it is my great pleasure to present the Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching to Professor Olati Johnson.
Remarks by Professor Olatunde Johnson
Thank you, Kate, and thank you Class of 2016 for this wonderful honor. I can retire now—really! I am grateful, and surprised. Surprised because I have sat here on this stage for a decade listening to graduating students make jokes about how they never understood Erie. How is that funny? We made a flow chart together. Remember Gasperini?
Congratulations for your accomplishments today. This day is a testament to your hard work, and to the support of your family and friends.
I also want to thank you for asking difficult questions during your time here. The real world came crashing into Columbia Law School while you were studying. And you persistently asked questions about the values and rules that shape that world. You also asked questions of those teaching you law. Your questions were fresh; they challenged us. They sometimes made us feel defensive and uncomfortable. You asked what we were teaching you, how we were teaching you, and what it really meant to “think like a lawyer.” As your professors, we lacked the answers to most of the questions. And, unlike most of the obscure questions you ask us after class, we could not look them up. We had to develop the answers together. We collectively thought about how to better prepare and engage you, our students, for a world in which you might have to design the solutions, not just critique or debate them. By asking hard questions, you helped leave this institution better than you found it.
I remember our discussion of the Supreme Court’s decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal. I know you all remember Iqbal. This is a case all first-year students read. When we read it, I tried to convey what Iqbal would now mean for plaintiffs who were trying to get their cases heard in federal court. How the case changed our understanding of pleadings under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, rules that had been in place for 75 years. I wanted students to understand how legal rules matter and the impact the case could have on a litigation system designed to give Davids the procedural tools to substantively challenge Goliaths.
But even so, you were not completely satisfied. Many of you were thinking about what we call “the facts”—about Iqbal himself. You asked: What happened to Javaid Iqbal after he was taken from his home on Long Island and detained in the supermax facility in Brooklyn on suspicion of terrorism? And what happened to the facility? Your questions brought to the fore much more than the Court’s sometimes opaque legal reasoning, or the Court’s empirical assumptions about the civil litigation process. You came to understand the role of lawyers inside government who documented the dire conditions within those facilities. And the role of litigators outside government who took this record and advanced new claims in federal court—despite the constraints of the Iqbal ruling. You brought insight and empathy. And you took that empathy to journey beyond the boundaries of the casebook, to imagine and to engage new ways of advancing your ideas of justice. I trust that you will not stop asking hard questions, and that you will leave institutions better than you found them.
You are fortunate to enter a profession where you can play a central role in shaping the fundamental structure and direction of our society. As Kate mentioned, I was a lawyer before I was a law professor. I am grateful to have litigated civil rights cases alongside brilliant, passionate lawyers at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; many of whom are my mentors still. I am grateful to have worked with Senator Kennedy, whose actions reminded me daily that you do not have to choose between political efficacy and courage.
The work you do will likely change throughout your career. When I graduated from law school, I did not imagine that I would be a law professor. And at times it feels removed from the social change work that I set out to do. But through this award you remind me that I am fulfilling part of my purpose. I come from a long line of teachers and professors. I am proudly a first-generation American; my family is from Sierra Leone. And, yes, for all the Nigerians out there looking indignant, part of my ancestry is also Yoruba, like my name. My great-grandfather, who was a bishop, was also a schoolteacher and a university professor. My paternal grandmother and grandfather, who raised seven children, were both schoolteachers. And my own mother and father taught as well, my father at the university level. I know that part of my purpose is fulfilled here at Columbia Law School in the City of New York, with all of you. That is why I am so grateful for the recognition you have given me today. I hope that you find your purpose in law and in life.
A final word: It is not easy to decide what to say to beloved students at their graduation. One of your classmates urged me to give a speech alongside an anger translator. My daughter encouraged me to rap or sing portions of Hamilton. I will save that for the after party. Graduation speakers are charged with congratulating you for your accomplishments, but also with reminding you of your privilege, and the accompanying responsibility. Past generations of law students might have tuned some of this out. Perhaps they had the luxury of hearing this call to action as mere rhetoric. But you have witnessed the world around you. It came crashing in when you were here at our law school. There are fundamental challenges that we must face to fulfill a basic vision of democracy, not to mention the more robust vision that many of us aspire to. You can’t hide from the responsibility. Your leadership in public problem solving is an imperative. So yes—“you did it!” I can’t wait to see what comes next.