David Gergen calls for greater leadership in the law at inaugural commencement exercises of Elon University School of Law

David Gergen, adviser to four United States presidents, Director of the Center for Public Leadership and Professor of Public Service at the Harvard Kennedy School, one of the country's preeminent political commentators, and chair of Elon University's Law School Advisory Board, described Elon Law's founding principles of engaged learning, service, and leadership, and underscored their importance to the legal profession and to the nation's well-being, in the inaugural commencement address before the charter class of the law school on May 24.

David Gergen addresses the charter class of Elon University School of Law

Describing his decision to help in founding and shaping the law school, Gergen said, “I must confess that when Elon University President Leo Lambert and Bobby Long, who is a wonderful supporter of this university and of this community, came to see me a few years ago to talk about their dream for a new law school and asked me if I would chair the advisory board, I had a lot of skepticism. Why in the world, I asked, do we need another law school? Why do we need more lawyers?”

“But they explained that Elon had a superb opportunity to create a law school with a difference,” Gergen continued. “One that would break the mold in legal education. This new school of law, they said, could build upon the national reputation that Elon University itself had developed at the undergraduate level for engaged learning. With a working courthouse embedded within the school, where students could get their hands dirty and train through a vigorous preceptors program that would bring lawyers from across the region to the law school to work with them one on one, with a continuing emphasis upon closing the gap between legal theory and legal practice, this new school could become a model and change legal education, something I believe needs to be done.”

“Then they began to talk about the law school and how it could also place an emphasis upon community service and leadership, where students would be encouraged to spend time volunteering in the community,” Gergen said. “While in school they would enroll in leadership courses and workshops, and have visitors who might inspire them, so that when they left they would be on their way to a life of serving and leading on behalf of the common good. They might be in a law firm, working in government, working in a corporation, working in a non-profit, but they could all contribute in service and leadership to the common good.”

Members of the charter class at Elon Law celebrate graduation

“As one who has been involved in trying to work with the next generation, to prepare a fresh generation of leaders for this country, public leaders, which I think we so much need, that vision had enormous appeal to me.”

Highlighting Elon Law’s successes

Gergen also noted the achievements of Elon Law over the past three years, and the leaders who have founded it and shaped its trajectory.

“So I decided to embrace the dream of the law school, just as you did graduates, just as members of this faculty have done, and just as generous benefactors and citizens and preceptors from all over this region have done, to come here to Elon and be a part of this dream,” Gergen said. “Now, as we celebrate this graduation of the charter class, all of us share an excitement and a sense of accomplishment that we have reached this milestone. A hundred and seven of you are graduating, the school has passed its initial accreditation test with flying colors, a strong faculty is coming into place, and you will go forward this summer to take the bar exam. It is a wonderful moment.”

David Gergen receives honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Elon University School of Law

“Much of the credit does belong to President Lambert, his wife Laurie, and the fine team of faculty and administration they have assembled here,” Gergen continued. “I would echo Noel Allen, all of us are indebted to Leary Davis, the first Dean who started to translate the dream into reality and created a strategy to carry us forward. As health considerations forced Leary to step down, we are absolutely thrilled that George Johnson has stepped up and has already proven that he is the right person, at the right moment, with the right values to lead this law school to an ever brighter future. The morale of this school has never been higher than it has recently under George Johnson’s leadership, and you should know that this past Spring, there was a drive to raise money for scholarships for students, and I have never heard of this before, they went to the faculty and asked the faculty would they contribute to student scholarships. Every single member of this law school faculty contributed to the student scholarship fund. Now that is remarkable.”

Gergen said, “Together, working with the community around us, this team is delivering on every promise they have made to each of us a few years ago. Graduates think back to that day, that wonderful day, when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor came here to inaugurate the school. After taking a tour and meeting students and faculty, she said, ‘It is clear that Elon Law is already a force with which to be reckoned.’ She went on to praise the quality of its facilities and, indeed, told one of the leading citizens of this community that she had visited about a hundred law schools all over the country and she had never seen a law school that was better equipped to give students a fine legal education.”

Building on Elon University’s legacy of excellence

“They [President Lambert and Bobby Long] pledged that within short order, they wanted this new law school to meet the same standards of excellence and achieve the same national reputation as the university itself had achieved. Those arguments were absolutely compelling because I have seen first hand how far this university has come over my own lifetime,” Gergen said.

“I grew up about 50 miles down the road in Durham and during those years, Elon seemed a small remote college town, just five buildings on less than six acres. Over the decades since, I have watched with admiration as the college and university started hiring faculty from front ranks and built a reputation for innovation and strong values. Visiting for the first time a few years ago, I also met Leo Lambert and the extraordinary team that he had recruited, and I had taken note of the dynamism of his own leadership. Leo is now entering his eleventh year as president of this university and in just that short time he has been here, this university has built 40 buildings and now occupies 600 acres. That is a university on the move. That is a university that attracts attention all over this country, and today students from far beyond North Carolina and this region are clamoring to come here.”

Gergen noted, “On several occasions in the past year prospective parents from Massachusetts, New York, and Washington, D.C., have called me personally and asked for help with the admission of a son or daughter. That is when you know a university is on the march, that it has come to represent excellence to families all over this country.”

Celebrating the contributions of the charter class

In his remarks, Gergen said that the school would not have succeeded without a series of remarkable contributions from the charter class, saying, “Let me congratulate you on your courage. You made a choice when you decided to come here, especially since so many of you came from celebrated universities from around the country, from Chapel Hill, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and of course, from Elon. And you had other safer choices, but you took the risk and in doing so you showed the world a pioneering spirit.”

“All of you now have shown us your wisdom, your courage, your service to others and your dedication to leadership. You have those qualities deep within you. You have proven that to all of us. What we ask of you now is to remember who you are and remember to give back, and we will all remain proud of you for the rest of our lives,” Gergen said.

Acknowledging the poor economy and the “toughest job environment that we have faced in this country since the great depression,” Gergen told graduates to, “Keep your eye on the far horizon. Whatever it is you are doing, succeed at what you are doing, it will be noticed, people will be grateful, and you will begin to forge a path to success. I celebrate and salute you for the third quality that you brought to the school and that was a commitment on your own part to service and leadership. It was something that you brought, not just something the school was encouraging.”

Quoting a column written by George R. Johnson, Jr., Dean of the law school, published in the News & Record of Greensboro on May 17, Gergen detailed the breadth of activities of the class, not only their academic work, but their creation of the Student Bar Association, the law review, the moot court teams, the Women’s Law Association, the Federalist Society, the Black Law Students Association, the law school Democrats, an organization for gay and lesbian law students among others, all conceived and launched by the enterprising members of the charter class.

Citing those contributions, as well as over 21,000 hours of community service the charter class has contributed across North Carolina, Gergen said, “What a stamp they themselves have put upon this law school, and what a stamp they have set for the classes that come after them.”

Click here to read a summary of the inaugural commencement exercises of Elon University School of Law, including a photo gallery and video clips.

Click here to read an article about Elon Law’s first annual David Gergen Award for Leadership and Professionalism.

Click here to read the citation for the honorary Doctor of Laws degree presented to David Gergen by Robert E. Long, Jr., a member of the Elon University Board of Trustees and Law School Advisory Board, and conferred by Leo M. Lambert, President of Elon University.

Click here to read Johnson’s column about the charter class.