Focus on Faculty
Dan Coenen, Caldwell Chair of Constitutional Law and an associate dean of the School of Law, is devoted to the law, his students, the university and the wider community.
Where did you earn degrees, and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in journalism, and then earned a law degree from Cornell Law School, where I was editor-in-chief of the Cornell Law Review. After graduating, I served as a law clerk for Judge Clement F. Haynsworth, Jr., of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and then for Justice Harry A. Blackmun of the U.S. Supreme Court. I later practiced law for six years with a firm in Charlotte, N.C.
I’ve been a member of the law school faculty since 1987. From the beginning I have taught first-year students in a course called contracts and sales and also handled upper-level courses in constitutional law. Like other faculty members, I do a lot of research and writing and pitch in with committees and other service work. Recently, I took on the role of associate dean for faculty development, which involves me in mentoring our law school’s junior faculty. I enjoy all of this work, but I enjoy teaching most of all.
How did you end up at UGA?
You never know what surprises life has in store. I grew up in Wisconsin and thought I had taken the great geographical adventure of my life when I headed off to upstate New York to study law. I expected at the time that I would go back to Wisconsin right after I graduated. But through a series of coincidences, and good luck, I received an offer of a one-year clerkship with a very distinguished federal judge. The only wrinkle was that the clerkship was in Greenville, S.C. I figured “What the heck! It’s only one year. Then I’ll head home to Wisconsin!” The other wrinkle arose when, on the day before I started my clerkship, I met a young Greenvillian named Sally Wyche. The day after I finished my clerkship, we were married. I never made it back to Wisconsin because we decided to settle in the South. It was a great decision. In Greenville and later in Charlotte and most recently here in Athens, I have had a steady flow of blessings in both my work and my personal life.
What are your favorite courses, and why?
There is something very special about teaching a first-year law course because it involves working to open up the minds of students to the complex, creative, disciplined, text-centered, multifaceted, fun, frustrating, liberating and enriching process of “thinking like a lawyer.” So, I really love teaching first-year contracts. But I love teaching upper-level constitutional law courses, as well.
What interests you about your field?
Wow! Everything!! Constitutional law is uniquely fascinating, I suppose, because it has much to do with our identity, our history and our aspirations as Americans. But there is far more to my interest in law than that. Working with the law is, for me, always stimulating because it involves a remarkable blend of background learning, rigorous analysis, creativity, judgment and expression. What also draws me to the law is that the essential goal of the discipline is to promote stability, well-being, justice and fairness throughout our society.
What are some of the highlights of your career at UGA?
I have received a number of teaching awards from students at the law school—which is something that I value all the more because of the extraordinary talent and deep commitment to students that I see every day among my law school faculty colleagues. Along the way, nine law school classes have asked me to help in reading their names at graduation, and I view those requests as very special. One year, after I had served in a mentoring role for a group of four incredible undergraduate students, they went out of their way to put up my name for an SBA faculty award, and that was deeply touching, too. I am filled with gratitude to those faculty members from around the university who endorsed my nomination for the Meigs Teaching Award in 1998 and the University Professorship in 2005. But I tend to think the greatest highlights come in small moments, when a student shares a remarkable insight in class or a recent graduate stops by to offer a word of thanks.
How does your scholarship inspire your teaching?
At the heart of the lawyer’s work are researching, thinking, organizing and writing. This is what scholars—at least scholars in my field—do. It has struck me in recent years that the synergy between my scholarly work and my teaching work involves only secondarily the discovery of new information or the gaining of new insights that I later bring into the classroom. The real synergy arises because my research work reminds me in a very powerful way of the intrinsic challenges of “doing law” well—whether the work product involves a contract, an SEC filing, a brief, a memo, a client meeting or a court appearance. As I see it, the serious-minded effort that goes into putting together a publishable article or book connects up my own work life with what I am teaching my students to do. It energizes me to urge my students—in part, I hope, through positive example—to embrace the commitment to the hard and sober, but also rich and satisfying, work that our profession demands.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
One of the challenges of law teaching and law learning is that many things are happening at once. The student is absorbing an entirely new vocabulary; learning about discrete cases as well as the broad architecture of the law; assimilating principles, rules, exceptions and exceptions to exceptions; discovering the power of disciplined reasoning; exploring the distinctive nature and nuances of legal texts, including the fertile ambiguities they contain; working constantly to distinguish cases and to reason by analogy; developing skills of criticism and of professional and ethical judgment; striving to achieve a client-centered, practical problem-solving mindset; sorting among large quantities of information in ways that require difficult choices about prioritization; accepting, if not embracing, the pervasive uncertainties of working with the law; and moving always to enhance skills of written and oral expression—all while drawing and expanding on earlier life lessons about human nature, responsible conduct, community-mindedness and common sense. For the best of lawyers, the honing of these skills and values involves a lifelong journey. My hope is that I help to give my students a good start down the road.
Describe your ideal student.
For me the ideal student is the UGA School of Law student. I have taught at UGA for 24 years, and I’ve never met a law student I didn’t like.
What is your favorite place to be or thing to do on the UGA campus?
What can beat the North Campus quads? I have traveled those grounds so many times that I find myself taking them for granted. But every once in a while—when the ginkgo near New College turns brilliant yellow in autumn or the President’s Garden in springtime bursts out in all its glory—I am reminded of what a miracle it is that I can work in this place.
What do you like to do beyond the UGA campus?
I have many interests, but first and foremost is my fabulous family. I could go on and on about my wife, Sally, and our three great children, Michael, Amy and Claire. Instead, I will say simply that it is a joy to spend time with each of them any time I can. I could also carry on about other things—the general awesomeness of Athens, the wonderful friends our family has made here, my occasional fiddling with palindromes, crosswords and other forms of wordplay, my sometimes excessive fascination with professional football (Go Packers!!!), but I will leave it at that.
Community and civic involvement includes….
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed community and civic activities of many kinds. I’ve been appointed by three mayors to serve on various committees and commissions and have served on the boards of some of the many charitable organizations that help make Athens the special place it is. Most memorable for me, however, is the run of about 10 years during which I was a Recreation Department youth basketball coach.
What are your favorite books, movies and the like?
My favorite movie, right now, may be The Big Chill, because it reminds me of a very special once-a-year gathering of old friends that occurs in my own life and that I value very much (and I hereby encourage close groups of UGA students to emulate this practice before time pushes you apart!). I like to read books about history—things like Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton or David McCullough’s biography of John Adams. I’m a big R.E.M. fan, but my very favorite musical group is the Beatles, and my favorite song by them is All You Need Is Love.
What is your proudest moment at UGA?
One proud moment came when the university administration, and then the board of regents, agreed to change the Josiah Meigs Teaching Award into the Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professorship. I worked to try to make that happen for several years and in doing so had the good fortune to collaborate with such remarkable faculty colleagues as Susette Talarico, Joe Broder and Fred Stephenson. The change, I think, both reaffirmed and pushed along UGA’s commitment to first-rate classroom teaching, and that is a matter of the highest importance to me.