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By Samson Habte
Aug. 29 — In the fall of 1989, a 27-year-old University of Richmond law student who would later become Virginia's top attorney walked into a classroom to learn legal ethics from a young adjunct professor also destined for political office.
“Historically, law students find that class pretty dull,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring later told a newspaper. But Herring said he learned a great deal from the course because of the dynamic teaching style of Tim Kaine, then a 31-year-old civil rights lawyer who taught the class part-time while serving as managing partner of his growing law firm and developing a national reputation as a skilled litigator.
Kaine stopped teaching at the law school in 1993 to run for city council—launching a 23-year political career that would take him to the governor's mansion, the U.S. Senate and, most recently, a convention hall in Philadelphia where he became the Democratic Party's vice presidential nominee.
But some of Kaine's former colleagues and students said they wouldn't have been surprised if the man now vying for the second-highest office in the land had instead returned to academia on a full-time basis after his gubernatorial term ended.
Kaine, who had been on then-candidate Barack Obama's vice presidential shortlist in 2008, was out of elected office for the first time in 16 years when his term as governor ended in 2010. And he did return to the classroom that year, as a distinguished lecturer at the school that had given him his first taste of academic life two decades earlier.
But Kaine's return to the University of Richmond—where he taught a popular law school seminar on 14th Amendment equal protection doctrine, and an undergraduate course on leadership—was short-lived.
Within the year, Sen. Jim Webb would announce he wouldn't seek re-election, triggering calls for Kaine to run for the seat.
Professor John Pagan, one faculty member who urged Kaine to run, said he thinks Kaine struggled with the decision—and that the tug of another campaign may have been weakened by his love for teaching and interest in ascending the Ivory tower, perhaps as the president of one of Virginia's public universities.
“He wasn't chomping at the bit to run for the Senate,” Pagan said. “I think he was quite happy and would've kept teaching for a long time but for the strange situation of Jim Webb deciding to step down after one term.”
In interviews with Bloomberg BNA, other faculty colleagues, and students who enrolled in Kaine's constitutional law class, described him as a natural educator who was deeply interested in the subject matter, solicitous toward students seeking career advice, and proactive in looking for ways to assist colleagues.
“Think about what he did not do,” Pagan said. “Usually ex-governors in Virginia who are lawyers, and most of them are, cash in. Tim could've gone with the biggest firms—he could've gone to Hunton & Williams, he could've gone to McGuireWoods, but he didn't.”
“He came out here,” Pagan said. And while Kaine “probably did that for a number of reasons,” including the fact that he “lives modestly,” one reason for his choice was that “he's a natural teacher,” Pagan said.
“It's not uncommon for people who leave high office to accept vanity positions at universities,” University of Richmond Law School Dean Wendy Perdue said in an interview.
“But that's not what this was,” Perdue said, discussing Kaine's appointment. “He took it very seriously.”
An example of that seriousness, Perdue said, was Kaine's insistence on becoming an advisor to a group of first-year law students—a responsibility that is compulsory for most full-time faculty but not required of adjunct professors and distinguished lecturers.
“Tim didn't have to take that on because he wasn't here full time, but he said he wanted to,” Perdue said.
Perdue said Kaine's willingness on take on the advisor role was particularly surprising because he still had another demanding job when he left the governorship: chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
The DNC chair generally spends hundreds of days crisscrossing the country to work the rubber-chicken fundraising circuit, and Kaine was in California on the day before student orientation in the fall of 2010.
“He took a red-eye back so he would be here to have lunch with his advisees,” Perdue said.
Former colleagues and students said Kaine's return to legal academia was also atypical because of what he chose to teach: a reading-intensive course on a complex subject that focused more on law and history than on policy and politics.
“If you've just finished a term as a governor there are certainly things you could choose to teach that wouldn't require a huge amount of preparation,” Perdue said.
“That's not what he did,” she said.
Kaine's seminar, titled “The Future of Equality,” was a three-credit course on the historical development of 14th Amendment equal protection jurisprudence.
“It was very detailed at the doctrinal level,” said professor Kevin Walsh, a tenured constitutional law scholar and former U.S. Supreme Court clerk. “This was not a sinecure in the sense of putting someone unqualified into a position. He knows his stuff.”
Perdue said it was unusual for a former officeholder to insist on teaching a course that was heavy on legal doctrine and history, rather than one more oriented toward politics and legislative sausage-making.
“And I think it highlights that Tim's interested in education and he's a serious educator,” she said. “If he’s going to take on teaching a course, he’s going to teach a course. He's not going to stop by and tell war stories.”
“It was hard to keep up with his enthusiasm and his passion for the subject matter,” said Qasim Rashid, who took Kaine's constitutional law seminar during his third-year in law school.
Rashid is now the policy director of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, a nonprofit that promotes gender equity around the world.
“He was as excited as anyone I’ve ever seen in a teaching role,” Rashid said. “Most professors kind of mail it in when they’re as accomplished as he is. But he did the reading and he’d ask pointed questions and expect a really thorough response.”
“You might think you were just going to get some face-time with a bold-faced name,” said Timothy R. Wiseman, another former student of Kaine's. “But no, it was a significant, nuts-and-bolts legal class.”
Perdue said Kaine's student evaluations were “overwhelmingly positive,” but added a caveat: “They complained about too much reading.”
Wiseman, now an associate in the Lexington, Ky., office of Dinsmore & Shohl LLP, didn't exactly complain when asked about Kaine's reputation for assigning too much reading. But he did aver that his former professor's syllabus was dotted with some real “door-stoppers”—“four and five-hundred page books” that students were sometimes expected to read in a week.
Those assignments included Simple Justice, Richard Kluger's acclaimed history of the litigation that forced the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and Democracy Reborn, Garrett Epps' account of the Reconstruction-era Congress's adoption of the 14th Amendment.
Kaine also assigned smaller pieces when his class traced the “equality ideal” through history and got to modern day constitutional disputes.
For example, when the class turned to a discussion of contemporary debates over affirmative action, Kaine had his students read “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege,” a Wall Street Journal opinion column penned in July 2010 by Sen. Jim Webb, who then had the seat Kaine now occupies.
Wiseman said Kaine rarely showed his hand as to his personal views about the sometimes-contentious topics that were the focus of his course.
Kaine did “footnote” Webb's arguments during class discussion, but he wasn't interested in pushing his views on students, Wiseman said. “He viewed his role as trying to facilitate discussion.”
Kaine's former students said they appreciated that he held regular office hours on days he was in Richmond.
“I don’t think he sleeps,” said Rashid, marvelling at his former professor's ability to make time for mentoring activities while also teaching and travelling the country as DNC chairman.
“Every time I had to schedule some time to meet, he made time,” said Rashid, who was giddy when his former professor agreed to pen a back-cover endorsement for his first book. “There was never a situation where he said, ‘I’m too busy.’”
Kaine's colleagues also credited him for showing a willingness to contribute to the faculty's mission and become a part of the academic community.
Walsh recalled that Kaine once asked him about his work and—after learning that Walsh was teaching a seminar on the U.S. Supreme Court—offered to speak with students during a class on judicial selection.
“Having learned that I was teaching about judicial appointments, he said ‘why don’t I come talk to your class. I’ve had the experience of appointing people, and I’d be happy share with your students what I was thinking,’” Walsh said. “It’s not something he had to do. He volunteered and I was impressed by that.”
“He was really here, he was actively looking for ways to contribute, and he did—generously,” Walsh added.
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