Dec. 1, 2010

Robert Summers, pre-eminent legal scholar and beloved teacher, says goodbye

After what he calls "a thousand years" of learning, teaching and writing about law, Robert S. Summers, the William G. McRoberts Professor of Research in the Administration of Law, taught his last class today (Dec. 1).

The day marks a milestone in a career that has spanned more than 50 years, 42 of them at Cornell. In that time, Summers has produced hundreds of publications, received top honors, led in crafting legal guidelines and frameworks in the United States and abroad, helped dramatically increase minority enrollment in American law schools and earned lasting respect from students and colleagues around the world.

Summers is perhaps best known as co-author of the Uniform Commercial Code (West Publishing Co.), written with James J. White in 1972 and now in its sixth edition. The four-volume treatise on the rules that coordinate the sale of goods and other commercial transactions throughout the 50 states is the most widely cited on the Code, which has been adopted by all 50 state legislatures.

"He's a giant of a scholar," said Faust F. Rossi, the Samuel S. Leibowitz Professor of Trial Techniques (and fellow St. Louis Cardinals fan). "I consider him a Hall-of-Famer. He's really the model of what a professor should be."

So while Summers may spend less time on campus from now on, there is no doubt that his presence -- the welcoming, easy manner, acute intellect, verbal dexterity, untiring dedication, wry humor and warm smile -- will be felt in Myron Taylor Hall and far beyond, long into the future.

In 27 years as a colleague, Stewart Schwab, the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Law School, said he has admired Summers' continued passion and enthusiasm for the law, and his dedication to his students and research assistants.

"Professor Summers is unique in many ways, but one special attribute is his relationship with his research assistants," Schwab said. "He knows how to use research assistants better than anyone I know. And over the years, this creates a real bond."

As for Summers himself, the journey, he says, has been delightful and rewarding.

"I have been veeerrry fortunate," he says often.

Summers was born in 1933 on his family's 80-acre farm a few miles outside Halfway, Ore. His early academic education was limited, due to the difficulty in attracting good teachers to the remote valley in eastern Oregon; but outside of school, his education -- in farming, self-sufficiency and the value of hard work -- was rich.

"I feel extremely fortunate to have grown up in such a beautiful place. I loved that life," he says. "It was a wonderful life."

And he never left it completely behind. Among the evidence: his farmer's work ethic, to which he credits his prolific publication list (55 books and more than 100 articles), his appreciation for the outdoors, and the thick muscles between his thumb and forefinger.

"I'm the only American law professor with genuine cow milking muscles," he says, with no small measure of pride.

Just recently his mother, now 99, moved off the farm and into town. His brother, a retired maxillofacial surgeon, has taken over.

Summers' academic pursuits -- undergrad at the University of Oregon, law degree at Harvard, Fulbright scholarship, professorships at Oregon and then at Cornell, fellowships at Oxford and Cambridge -- belie his small-town roots. But he set his sights on law school early on.

"My grandfather, Charles Samuel Summers, used to say, 'Robert, you should be a lawyer. You sure do talk good,'" he said. "And so I think I took the inspiration from that."

He worked his way through college and law school, putting in hours driving first a tractor, then a school bus. He ran for student body president in college (and won) for the $500 the position paid.

At Harvard, he studied under two of the leading scholars in jurisprudence -- H.L.A. Hart (of Oxford University) and Lon L. Fuller -- and developed his first passion, for the philosophy of law. Along with dozens of publications in the subject, his jurisprudential expertise led to lectureships, fellowships and lasting ties with universities in the U.K. and across Europe.

Meanwhile, he acquired a second passion: contract law and the Uniform Commercial Code. Writing the treatise with White, he said, has been one of the highlights of his career.

Summers also collaborated with Robert Hillman, a former student and now Cornell's E.H. Woodruff Professor of Law, to write "Contract and Related Obligation: Theory, Doctrine and Practice" (West Publishing Co.,1987). The book, now in its sixth edition, is a major text in contract law.

In 1993 the Russian government called on Summers to help draft that country's new civil code. He later served as adviser to the Drafting Commission for the Egyptian Civil Code (1998-99) and as principal drafter for the Code of Contract Law for Rwanda (2006-10).

Summers' third passion -- and perhaps his most abiding legacy -- are his students.

In the 1960s he began advocating for more minority students in law schools, holding summer sessions around the country, with Robert O'Neil of the University of California-Berkeley, to recruit and prepare minority undergraduates.

"That was one of the largest, most satisfying public service activities I have ever been privileged to engage in in my life," Summers said. "It was extremely inspiring."

In his own classes, he is known for his dedication to the Socratic method of teaching: instilling principles and concepts through rigorous questioning and argument, rather than "ladling [information] out on a spoon."

"It teaches the students analytical focus, verbal adroitness and articulateness, and it keeps them on their toes," he said. "You've got to hold their feet to the fire."

Summers is one of the few left to use the traditional Socratic method, said Rossi.

"It's very difficult for the teacher to do -- to ask the students questions, to push them," Rossi said. "And he has always done that, and he works very hard at it. And the students are under pressure, and yet they realize that he works hard at it, and they know that he cares."

Colleague and former student Hillman can testify.

"He made you feel like he was really interested in your success and your career," Hillman said.

Summers has also been dedicated to the Cornell Law School, Hillman added, serving on committees and taking leading roles in administrative issues. "And when faculty come to Cornell, and they see someone achieving such prominence in their field, it is inspirational."

Student and current research assistant Cathelynn Tio '11 will remember Summers with deep respect and affection.

"His generosity of spirit and open-mindedness, his great sense of humor, his deep love for teaching and learning, his keen sense of fairness, and his uncanny ability to think critically and systematically are only a few of the many things that come to mind when I think of Professor Summers," she wrote in an e-mail. "I will forever be grateful for [the] confidence that he has instilled in me."

As will Hillman. "Cornell Law School will not be the same with Bob gone," he said.

The affection is mutual.

"I've had such a great run here. Cornell has been absolutely fantastic," Summers said.

"I was very fortunate. Very fortunate, to have come here," he added. "Really."