Alfred P. Rubin: The Best Professor I Ever Had

by Duncan Hollis

For those of us fortunate enough to end up with a career in international law, we all have our mentors, our guiding lights.  Mine was Professor Alfred P. Rubin of the Fletcher School.  He died last week.  I write to express my condolences to his family and friends and offer a few words on his influence on my life as well as the whole Fletcher community, where he taught for 30 years.  Simply put, I would not be an international lawyer — let alone a professor of international law — had Professor Rubin not pushed, encouraged, and inspired me onto my current path.  He was the best professor I ever saw grace a classroom.

Truth be told, when I arrived at Fletcher in the Fall of 1993, I had no expectations of a career in international law.  I had enjoyed studying it as an undergraduate at Bowdoin with Allen Springer (a former student of Professor Rubin as it turned out).  But I’d applied to Fletcher to study Japan, not law; I had four years of Japanese language classes under my belt and had just finished a summer internship in Osaka.  To complete my joint degree, however, I still needed four law-related courses. LAW 200: The International Legal Order looked interesting.  I was a bit wary of an early morning class 3 days a week, including Fridays, plus an unusual year-long course structure. Still, Rubin’s classes were legendary so I decided to take it during my first semester.

In what was a trademark for his contrarian demeanor, Professor Rubin started off our first class with a simple, but powerful, challenge — insisting that there is no such thing as human rights.  An Australian classmate took the bait, and responded that they must exist, to which Professor Rubin pushed back, asking if human rights existed as law or morality.  That generated a fairly intense discussion on what law “is”, who should decide the law’s contents and by what processes.  Fifty minutes later, I was hooked.  LAW 200 became my favorite class. I would actually wake up happy on class days, eager to see what the morning’s discussion might hold — the Trent Affair’s illumination of customary international law, the divine law origins of treaties (which I’ve made use of subsequently), or one of my favorite casesMortensen v. Peters. We wrestled with the (in)consistency of the ICJ’s approach to the South Africa question, the meaning of “genuine and effective links” for citizenship, plus older chestnuts like the Lotus case. Along the way, Professor Rubin moved us beyond doctrine to legal theory, asking us to work through various iterations of positivist and naturalist methods in original and neo-formulations.  We didn’t just read Hart, we went back to Kelsen (reading Kelsen being fairly atypical in American legal education).

The Spring semester brought piracy and thornier topics like recognition, succession, jurisdiction, and conflicts of law.  A few years later, Monroe Leigh (who along with Cynthia Lichtenstein were my other early mentors) took me on as his associate in part because I’d invoked the Fruehauf case from Rubin’s class to advise a client.  As the semester progressed, my classmates and I debated whether Professor Rubin’s tears in discussing the legality of the bombing of Hiroshima were real (they were) and marveled at how he cared about the “law” as a concept and detested hypocrisy in any form.  None of us will ever forget how Rubin ended the year — re-enacting the scene from A Man for All Seasons where Sir Thomas More responds to William Roper’s call for an arrest even if it means cutting a road through the law to get after the Devil:

Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, And if you cut them down, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

Two decades later, I’m still trying to figure out Professor Rubin’s secret ingredient — the persistent Socratic dialogues, the deep dives into doctrine, the marshaling of legal theory in concrete cases, or that undeniable passion for his subject-matter. It may have been something as simple as his gentle voice — a slight hesitancy in speech with an ever-present inquisitive tone.  I confess that my study group spent hours imitating that voice (one of us who shall remain nameless with much success).  We did so without any sense of hostility or meanness — but rather as a mark of our affection for his teaching and our sense that his class was a shared experience.  And it was not by any means an easy one — the reading assignments were enormous with Rubin assuming we all knew the material so we could take the class discussion to a more critical level. I still have my notes (the only ones that I’ve kept). I was amazed to revisit them yesterday to see just how much we covered that year in history, doctrine and theory.  I’ve never had another class like it.

Beyond the classroom, Professor Rubin was a thoughtful adviser.  Conveniently located on the way to the cafeteria, his office door was always open.   He welcomed students in to ask questions about class or the oft-discussed career question – “So, exactly, how does one become an international lawyer?”  He never rushed students off (even if we’d interrupted one of his many Minesweeper computer games). I treasured those conversations, and the chance to soak in his knowledge, his experience, and his many, many books. I have a shelf-long collection of green volumes of the American Journal of International Law in my office today for no other reason than Rubin had one.  In later semesters our conversations deepened and I gained insights into key sources and research methods.  To this day, I’m reluctant to cite a secondary source when a primary one is at hand since I picture Professor Rubin watching over me and shaking his head, reminding me he expects nothing less.

I will always be most indebted to Professor Rubin for his willingness to go beyond advice to action. In the summer of 1994 I was (unhappily) a temporary secretary in Suffolk University’s physical plant. The job was in the sub-basement below the actual basement.  It was hard to see how this was going to advance my dreams of becoming an international lawyer until I got a call from Jeffrey Bates, a partner at Goodwin Proctor at the time.  Another former student of Rubin’s, he needed a legal clerk to do some research, and Professor Rubin had recommended me. Overnight, I transferred onto a large and intensive research project that laid the foundations for all that followed.  I have no doubts that the Goodwin clerkship made it possible for me to join Steptoe and Johnson as an associate, which in turn led me to the State Department, and eventually Temple Law.  All this from one recommendation by Professor Rubin (a recommendation I’d not even asked him to make).  Nor am I alone in this experience.  Generations of Fletcher students sought out the Rubin experience and found themselves entering the field of international law in one way or another. From that introductory class alone, four of us spent time in the Legal Adviser’s office at the U.S. Department of State; others ended up at the United Nations, in foreign ministries, and private practice.  At least three of us followed his path into the academy to teach international law.

Having been a member of international law’s “invisible college” for a few years, I know that Professor Rubin was regarded by other law professors as an academic, known for his work on piracy and unilateral declarations, and some ferocious commentary from the floor at the American Society’s Annual Meeting.  For my part, however, I choose to remember Professor Rubin as a teacher.  In later years, we kept in touch until his health began to fail.  He’d ask me to call him by his first name, Al.  I couldn’t do it.  He was and will always be my professor of international law.  A gentleman, a scholar, but above all a teacher.  May he rest in peace.

http://opiniojuris.org/2014/12/10/alfred-p-rubin-best-professor-ever/

4 Responses

  1. Al R.I.P.

  2. Thanks for a wonderful and inspirational remembrance.

  3. Well said, Duncan.

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  1. […] former student of Professor Rubin, Duncan Hollis, recently wrote in an article for Opinio Juris that he was “the best professor he ever had.” I’d like to share a bit of that […]