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Last Updated February 13, 2008

J. Woodford Howard Jr., Thomas P. Stran Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University

February 8, 2008
Bender Arena
American University
As Delivered

Only Neil Kerwin could induce me to wear these robes. Of course, he knows I am a professor at heart, as he is too. Which means, “have mouth, will travel.” Kidding aside, I am really very flattered to be here. My assigned task is to provide a brief, personal portrait of someone one who for many years has virtually personified this place. Because most of his education and career occurred here at American University, I shall focus elsewhere, mainly on what I know best, which are his years as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins--I think between 1973 and '78--where I was his teacher in public law and his dissertation adviser.

Two things were apparent right off the bat. First, on the plus side were his exceptional administrative skills among our very fussy faculty. For example, if I remember this correctly, he was a graduate student coordinator for our urban studies programs. And in that role I shall never forget how skillfully he ushered and handled visiting members of Italy's constitutional court around our campus, Baltimore's “Little Italy,” and the new Inner Harbor, which at that point, was really quite an exciting place to see. In my mind's eye I can still see Neil, pushing--politely--a couple of rather buxom Italian justices in a long white Cadillac stretch limo, like the kind you see parked on the south side of the Washington Cathedral at wedding time.

Neil was always an excellent talker, but on the downside--and we all have downsides--like many (of his) peers at the time, he really didn't write very well. Frankly, I didn't either at his age. So I knew, too, where he was coming from. Missing, like so many of his peers, was a command of plain old-fashioned English grammar and syntax. Remember, he is a product of the 60s--it's a different era. And aggravating the problem at the time at Hopkins was an infusion of new literary criticism techniques of Jacques Derrida and other French philosophers which pervaded several Hopkins departments, including history and political science. Indeed, Derrida was on our faculty when I joined it, and many leaders in this movement from over the world taught and attracted gifted students from elite schools like Swarthmore, Harvard, Yale, and a special language seemed to be replacing English as the common tongue.

Initially, Neil and other students from American and foreign governments seemed spooked by all this. In seminars, at first, he seemed shy, diffident, and a bit scared. That's a good sign. I, too, struggled to understand this movement about the “meaning of meaning.” Yet, I learned from growing up in eastern Kentucky hills, and politics, that people pay attention if you say your piece well. My remedy was basically to become a glorified copy editor, paying close attention to the grammar and syntax of everything that students wrote, line by line, comma by comma, period by period. Neil never squawked, at least to me. His dissertation was well done, well argued, and became the root of what became a steady flow of articles, two books, and various reports and so on that make him a well-respected scholar in the field of public law and judicial administration to this day.

Now I don't know much about your university, and I probably shouldn't say this, but I can't resist. I would like to offer a brief, personal observation. Except for his years in Rhode Island and at Hopkins, he has spent his entire career at this institution. He has served it in multiple capacities and thus observed it from many angles, perspectives, and problems. For those who fear in-breeding by choosing one of your own, be careful, be quiet: Harvard and Oxford have done it for centuries. As Justice Holmes used to say about picking Supreme Court justices, it all depends on fine fitting of the job to the human cloth. I think personally, he fits.

In his many roles here, Neil has learned this place, led this place, he's loved this place, he's understood this place—as few others do. The powers that be, after a diligent search, have found a worthy leader in their own backyard. That, too, is a favorite American story. There's a very popular book--one of the first million-dollar best sellers in the 1890s--on that theme and I can't remember the title, I'm sorry--but it is fitting for him, for you and for American University in the nation's capital.

Thank you very much.


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