Half a Century at UConn Law: Professor Bob Whitman

Professor Bob Whitman

By Thomas Dargon, Jr.

Bob Whitman is UConn Law’s longest-serving professor. In grammar school, he dreamed of being a history teacher, and in his 2L year, he knew he’d become a law professor. With some inspiration and encouragement from Walter Gellhorn (of Gellhorn & Byse), Bob has dedicated his life to teaching and mentoring students.

After graduating from Columbia Law, he accepted a professorship at Maryland Law in 1960. Whitman’s wife didn’t care for Baltimore, and after two years, the couple moved to New York. Knowing that he’d become a better professor if he practiced law, Whitman interviewed at a dozen Manhattan firms and received an offer from every single one. Ultimately, he accepted at Cravath, Swaine & Moore and stayed there for more than two years before moving to a mid-sized firm, where he specialized in trusts and estates.

When Whitman came to UConn in 1966, the law school was located at 1800 Asylum Avenue, and there were only 16 faculty members. Unsurprisingly, he would be the heavy favorite to win a Jeopardy category called “History of UConn Law.” He recalls every detail of the move to Elizabeth Street and the purchase of land from the Hartford Seminary. Apparently, the property was appraised at $6 million, but UConn acquired it in a bargain sale for $2 million because the Seminary was pleased that the new residents would be involved in the pursuit of research and writing.

Whitman admits that law school has changed immensely since his days at Columbia. For one, grade inflation is rampant. At Columbia, one-third of his 1L class flunked out of school, but at UConn, 75% of our 1L class has a 3.0 GPA or better. Further, “it used to be law review or nothing,” but UConn has three specialty journals and our law review accepts nearly seventy members. At Columbia, he attended classes six days per week and studied “all of the time.” Now, Bob sees big changes in the student body: more students are married, have children, work through school (unheard of in the 1950’s), and are only on campus a few days per week. Good news: at least one thing has not changed. Whitman fully supports the argument that LSAT scores do not accurately predict law school success.

Whitman has no plans of retiring. He is a frequent speaker at conferences, remains active with his publications, and hasn’t taken a sabbatical in three decades. He encourages students interested in trusts and estates to reach out to him to discuss job placement opportunities, and as Faculty Advisor to the Academic Career Society, he’d be delighted to meet with anyone who thinks they may want to become a law professor.

As we begin a new chapter, Whitman is hopeful that Dean Fisher will be able to get us back into USNWR’s top 50 because, as he points out, “that’s important to people.” Forty-seven years later, Whitman wants to be remembered for his kindness and his pledge to “give back.” He encourages professors to form bonds with students and not let the pressure of academic scholarship overwhelm their ability to provide guidance and support.

Whitman and his wife have been married for fifty-two years, have lived in West Hartford for forty-seven years, and have two children and four grandchildren. Their oldest grandchild will be heading to Storrs this fall, which was his first choice.

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