First female professor at University of Michigan Law School teaches last class


By Lori Atherton
U-M Law

The 1Ls in Professor Christina Whitman’s Torts class weren’t sure what to make of the professors lining up at the back of the room. Toward the end of class, however, it became apparent why they were there: to applaud—or “clap out”—Whitman, who was teaching her last class on December 5. Whitman is the first female faculty member to have joined the University of Michigan Law School, so it’s only fitting that her colleagues showed up to laud her 42-year teaching career.

Whitman, the Frances A. Allen Collegiate Professor of Law, started teaching at Michigan Law in fall 1976—just two years after graduating from her alma mater. That same year, she was joined on the faculty by Professor Sallyanne Payton, who is now retired from the Law School. It would be another eight years, Whitman noted, before the Law School hired two more female professors—Rebecca Eisenberg and Jessica Litman.

“What was great about seeing all the faculty arrayed around the room [during the clap-out] is how many women are on the faculty now,” said Whitman, who has taught Torts, Federal Courts, and Supreme Court Litigation. “We still could hire more women, but it’s just not an issue now the way it was when I started.”

Whitman always wanted to be an academic, but knew her chances of teaching in her graduate field—Chinese literature—were slim. Jobs were scarce, and the ones that were available typically went to men. So she pursued a law degree, which opened the door to a lifelong career at Michigan. “I was so lucky that while I was in law school there was pressure to hire women,” Whitman said. “When the faculty approached me to come back and teach, it was a chance to do what I always wanted. It was a no-brainer.”

As a 20-something professor just starting out, Whitman often was younger than her students, many of whom were Vietnam War veterans or older women looking to jumpstart a new career. Twice the recipient of the L. Hart Wright Award for Excellence in Teaching, most recently in 2014, Whitman said those early students taught her how to teach. “They used signals for when they wanted me to speak louder or go more slowly,” she laughed. Though her male students were kind, they weren’t shy about testing Whitman’s authority. “I would get really explicit challenges in the classroom from people who weren’t used to having a woman faculty member,” she said. “But that stopped for me pretty quickly. As more women have joined the faculty over the years, I’d like to think that their being tested in the classroom has stopped—and it would be a really wonderful change if that has happened.”

As the decades passed, Whitman’s students evolved, changing from mostly older students who practiced in their home communities after graduation, to younger, more diverse students who came to law school much savvier about their careers, interests, and political views. “The thing that’s really changed a lot is the sophistication about women’s issues on the part of both men and women,” said Whitman, who has taught a Feminist Legal Theory seminar at the Law School since the 1980s. “When I introduced the class the theories we talked about were revelations to the students; they hadn’t been exposed to them before, and many of them said the class was life-changing. By the time we got to the 90s post-Anita Hill, students came to law school with a lot more sophistication about sexual harassment and other issues.”

Whitman—like her students—also evolved, and discovered new skills and strengths while serving in administrative roles, including associate dean for academic affairs at Michigan Law; special counsel to the provost for the policy on conflicts of interest/conflicts of commitment and vice provost for academic and faculty affairs at U-M; and chair of the Law School Admissions Council Board of Trustees, a position she’ll hold until May 2019. These roles, Whitman said, have been particularly rewarding because of their interdisciplinary nature. “They’ve made academic life much more full and varied,” she said, “and I’ve constantly learned not just in scholarly ways but about higher education and legal education.”

Teaching, however, has remained Whitman’s passion, and she’s grateful to have had a front-row seat to her students’ development during their three years in law school. “The way students grow in their confidence, knowledge, and facility—you can really see what legal education does for them, and it’s terrific.”