Monday, April 21, 2014

A Reflection on Drafting Justice

Part of the Division J Post-Conference Download series

by Michael A. Olivas, William B. Bates Distinguished Chair of Law and Director of the Institute of Higher Education Law & Governance at the University of Houston Law Center

USC’s Adrianna Kezar, as always generous, has asked me to blog about my recent AERA. While I am a great consumer of the blogging efforts of others, I do not produce any blogs, in my personal ecological effort to keep the blogosphere green and Olivas-free. But since she asked nicely, I have jotted down some notes and edited portions of my Award Lecture. I am trying to live within a carbon and byte footprint, so it is edited for brevity. I have edited the remarks I made at the AERA Awards Lecture, upon receiving the AERA Social Justice in Education Award for 2014, “Drafting Justice: Statutory Language, Public Policy, and Legislative Reform.” In the Lecture, I recounted the details and satisfactions of my involvement in several legislative reform efforts where I wrote statutory language myself or in collaboration with other co-conspirators, in the areas of state immigration DREAM Acts, college access, and the Texas Top 10 % Plan:
However, all of this is just prelude, and protesting, probably too much—that exquisite Shakespearean turn of phrase about suspect motives and false humility. The truth is, I concede I am drawn this way due to the congeries of personal attributes, and the unlimited latitude I have in my pursuit of suitable topics. Of all the dimensions of a full life as a professor—the opportunities and rewards of teaching, mentoring, scholarship, consulting, professional service, advising—I will say that one small piece of my life has been more deliberate and purposeful, and I rarely see this side of service and social justice acknowledged, so I have chosen as my topic "Statutory Language, Public Policy, and Legislative Reform," with the tongue in cheek corollary "Being in the Right Place at the Right Time with the Right People," a truism that likely accounts for my own involvement and satisfaction with this piece of my work, statutory drafting and legislative reform, including its kissing cousin, regulatory reform and administrative law. If there is an advocacy-gene in me, it is likely one nurtured by experience and my training, especially my legal training.  Just as it is always noteworthy how much children's willingness to learn turns on how much they like their teacher, a truly scary and life-affirming observation, but I am no different. . .

I end, as I began, grateful for this recognition, absolving all the nominators who so thoughtfully singled me out, and grateful for the many opportunities being a professor has afforded me. I am at the stage of my career where I am more delighted at my students’ achievements than I am at my own.  It isn’t even a close call. When they publish, get elected to judicial or legislative office, start a law firm, start a family, win an important case, I feel very fulfilled.  I delight in their returning to see me, their attending UHLC functions, their calls, their emails.  Don’t get me wrong: I’ve also had a half dozen students (that I know of) disbarred or admonished.  I cringe reading the Texas Law Journal disciplinary listings, the way my grandfather used to scan The Santa Fe New Mexican obituaries, to see how many primos or cuates he had lost.  But most have done extraordinarily well, and I celebrate them today with you.  Education is truly our society’s engine of upward mobility and stability.
As satisfying as a recent book or article or testimony is—and there is almost nothing better than laboring at the keyboard and bringing forth a piece into print—I really believe that nurturing young professionals, especially young professors, is the highest calling, the most rewarding vocation.  Now I know why my parents honored teachers; in our home, we often had our grade school teachers over to our house on important occasions, and they would sit in my father’s chair—something I don’t even do to this day, years after his too-early passing.  Every year, he would accompany each of us to the first day of school, a ritual that to this day haunts me.  (I am the oldest of ten children.)  He would say to each new teacher:  “I’m Sabino Olivas, and his teachers say my son Michael is smart but can be lazy.  I would like homework assigned every night, or a note from you telling me there is no homework.  You can punish him if he deserves it, but you must inform me so I can also punish him.”  No litigation in my family. Needless to say, I always dreaded the first day of classes, and classmates at my 25th high school reunion remembered these humiliating “teaching moments.”  But they had their desired effect, and I guess I always understood I would be a teacher of one sort or another, if only to gain my father’s approval.  And it was hard to win this approval. Years later, I would return to my native New Mexico, and run into one of my Dad’s friends, only to discover that they knew all about what I was up to—writing a book or giving a lecture somewhere—because he’d been bragging about me. But never to my face.  Praise, like allowance, was carefully rationed in the Olivas household.
Thus, in the spirit of this extraordinary Award, I thank all the colleagues who wrote letters for me, which were, fortunately, not subject to any Texas oath requirements for truthfulness (and believe me, they checked the statutes). I accept it for all the many teachers who shaped me.  But for the most part, notwithstanding these wonderful friends and colleagues, I accept it on behalf of my hundreds and hundreds of students, from Ohio State English composition classes, and Education and Law students from the various schools where I have visited, but especially my UH students, and especially those who have become professors.  Some of you are in this room, edging towards the doorways. You are truly my greatest gift, and I thank you all for this honor at the midpoint of my life as a professor.  I will try to be worthy of it.
What other profession, perhaps save that other teaching vocation—the religious life—gives back so much to its practitioners?  To be good at it, we must contend with ideas, reconcile contradictions, grapple with evil, especially the evil of ignorance and hatred.  But, with practice, and on a good day, we have our breakthrough articles, our wonderful classes, our worthwhile service. We should guard this splendid privilege and not squander it on self-indulgence, passing politics, commerce, or mean spiritedness.  In this transcendent sense, I share this with all of you, my AERA colleagues.
I will say that the Lecture and the Awards Lunch made my recent AERA experience a very good one. And it reminded me once again what a lucky boy I am.

This post is part of our Post-Conference Download series. Over the weeks following the 2014 Annual Meeting, we will feature several reflections on the conference.

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