Richard A. Epstein (professor)  

Foreordained for Chicago
Richard A. Epstein

My first experiences at the University of Chicago long antedate my joining the faculty 30 years ago. My older sister Alice had spent two years in College at the University of Rochester before she transferred to the University of Chicago. My younger sister JoAnn spent one year at New York University before she transferred here as well. I had therefore over a dozen years of continuous exposure to the intellectual life at the University of Chicago before I transferred here as a faculty member from the University of Southern California Law School in the fall of 1972.

My period of constant engagement with the University has thus carried over my entire adult life, and I continue to marvel at how institutions develop certain personalities that seem to survive a complete turnover of the individuals who populate them. Even as a college student in the 1950s, I sensed the intense intellectual pace that defined life at this University, and at this Law School, which is so much a part of this University. People pushed, tested and probed almost at will. Yet all of these exchanges took place by an invisible set of legal rules that would have made the Marquis of Queensbury proud. There are many low blows that can be inflicted in argument, of which the most common is to appeal to rank and position when reason starts to fail. Our house rules guarded against that risk. Discussion at the University of Chicago follows, it might be said, a form of the first possession rule. Those who get the floor are allowed to keep it. The shy will have to remain silent on the side lines. But keeping the floor is not simply a matter of moving one’s jaw. You had to say something that was worth hearing, or else you found yourself quieted under our local version of the gong show.

Sounds harsh? Well consider that the flip side of this norm is a complete disdain for the artificial pretensions rank and authority. Contests in life can be scored, as it were, by bridge rules or chess rules. In bridge master ratings are achieved by cumulative points. One can therefore have a very high ranking even if well past one’s prime. That does not happen in chess, where a ranking reflects a current performance, not historical highs. Chicago operates on chess rules on a daily basis. Young people therefore enter into this formidable world knowing that they will be judged by what they have to say, not by their age or their credentials. This dominant cultural feature liberates debate by creating, as we Chicagoans like to say, the right kind of incentive structure. Senior faculty members are kept on their toes because they know that rank has few if any privileges. Junior faculty members get on their toes because they know that they can participate from the get-go in the life of the community.

The resulting mix is not for all comers. People who visit Chicago are often tempted to describe our distinctive norms as a laboratory for Social Darwinism, red in tooth and claw. But in so doing, they miss one of the key strengths of the Law School’s culture. The sharp level of interchange, more often than not, leads to an increased respect and cooperation across the faculty. It encourages people to try out ideas that become the basis of their future articles. It leads them to read each other’s work, and to collaborate on joint projects in the great tradition of Walter Blum and Harry Kalven’s work on Progressive Taxation. It carries over to teaching by legitimating the Socratic method: the students know that the faculty who fire questions from the podium are often on the receiving end of spirited inquiry at lunch and in workshops. And most of all this culture helps us young as we get older. There is no mystery behind the extraordinary productivity of the scholars at the University and the Law School. Our social universe that values our contributions. We work in an environment in which we have both strong support and face stiff competition. The culture of the Law School will not allow us to become complacent today, any more than it has allowed them to be complacent when it first opened up its doors a century ago. I was foreordained to spent my academic career here.