'Outstanding' Professors Deflect Honor Back to William and Mary| February 20, 2004
On the surface, there are few similarities between Richard A. Williamson and Kris E. Lane.
Williamson, the College’s Chancellor Professor of Law is precise, his language straightforward, his stride indicative of a man who by day arms legal scholars with the tools to argue the finest nuances of Constitutional Law and who, in his off-hours, takes on, as the College’s Coordinator of Legal Affairs, issues as diverse as copyright, freedom of information and race.
Lane, in contrast, engages in the casual off-hand manner appropriate in a young professor of history whose first book grew out of a fascination with piracy and who is just as at home spending summers speaking Quichua in Third World Latin America as he is at a desk in Tyler Hall.
As one listens, however, it becomes apparent that the two men share these traits: Each is spectacularly driven toward excellence; each buys wholly into this place called William and Mary.
For the College, the results are outstanding: This year, during Charter Day ceremonies on Feb. 7, it recognized Williamson and Lane with its Jefferson Awards, the highest honors it can bestow on members of its faculty.
Excellence in TeachingIt is teaching—the bold exchange of necessary facts and transformative ideas—in which Williamson and Lane excel. Each credits a spark from his students.
After 35 years, Williamson says he “still gets excited walking into the classroom.” He talks in terms of his “opportunity” to teach here. “Always, students have been the number-one priority for me,” he adds.
In the classroom, he teaches as he listens. As one intimate with Socratic instruction, he cherishes dialogue. Even at the new school—he is one of the few who refer to the 1980 Marshall-Whyth School of Law building on South Henry St., with its tiered lecture halls, as “the new school”—he finds himself moving toward the edge of the professor’s well—“getting as close to students as I can, to listen,” he says. “It is not an intentional style,” he scoffs, yet explains that its “purpose is both to get the students thinking, then to have them ponder the response coming from other students, asking questions of their own, not necessarily of me.”
The questions are immense: Williamson teaches the core criminal procedure course in which students confront the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth amendments to the U.S. Constitution. There are new questions—his class on white-collar crime did not exist 20 years ago. “Most of the time the questions have no real right or wrong answers: however, there are good and bad answers. In law, very, very few things are absolute.”
Students respond. Recent evaluations characterized Williamson as one who “engages,” who makes students “think” before they “speak,” and who is “undoubtedly one of, if not the best professors I’ve had.”
Lane’s impact in class is of the same quality. Students flock to his courses, where he, over time, weaves his lessons around artifacts, photographs and stories to convince them that Latin America is important.
“It is important: Everybody wants to know about Europe; after that, Asia; after that Africa; and Latin America barely makes the cut,” he says, “but that is a “wrong-headed approach”—wrong-headed politically and socially. He makes his pitch: In order to understand ourselves, we need to understand the development of the United States in terms of the Americas. His goal: “I want informed citizens to come out of my classrooms to participate in a knowledgeable way in civil debate.”
His students love him. One said, “His qualities as a teacher and mentor exemplify his efforts towards the betterment of society.” Another said, “Whether lecturing on Peruvian independence … or leading an impromptu guided tour … through Ecuador’s National Museum, Professor Lane is always able to present information so that his students are not only left with basic facts but also a tangible story by which to wind them together.”
Such praise worries Lane. “It’s tough if you want to improve as a teacher,” he says self-reflectively. “In my case, I like to experiment.” During the fall semester, he adopted a tougher personna; he graded harder; he tried to get the best out of each student knowing that it is not enough “just to be a teacher who is loved.” He empathizes because he is young; he remembers what it was like to struggle. “Even those who are frighteningly smart” he says, can be “vulnerable.” Others, he knows, “will pull my chain.” He doesn’t want to be too easy—that would be a disservice. He goes through the process: “It is part of trying to find the balance,” he says, “a part of learning about what is excellent here.”
Beyond the ClassroomThe marks Williamson and Lane have made on the College extend far beyond their respective classrooms.
For the past 10 years, serving as the College’s general counsel, Williamson has been legal adviser to what he describes as a“$200-million-a-year operation with all the problems of any large business. It has 1,500 employees. It is a state institution, and thus has all the rules and regulations that the state imposes. Also, the federal bureaucracy is deeply engaged in everything that we do. It is a complex world.”
His service as legal counsel has earned Williamson profound respect. W. Taylor Reveley, III, dean of the law school, knows that Williamson’s designation as Coordinator of Legal Affairs “barely nibbles around the edges of a realistic description of the range and importance of Dick’s legal work.” Former William and Mary Provost Gillian T. Cell said of him, “I had access to a lawyer who returned my calls promptly, who needed little to no explanation of the institutional context of a problem, and who could offer excellent legal counsel while understanding the policies, governance structure and institution particularities—or may I say, ‘peculiarities’—of the College.”
Lane, likewise, gives himself wholly. “There is never a time when I’m not thinking about some aspect of my job,” he says. He has taken on many initiatives in which he feels he can “contribute to the excellence” of William and Mary. He is reluctant to list them, but James McCord, chair of the history department, recently did. After acknowledging Lane’s “superior accomplishments in teaching and scholarship,” McCord praised him for holding a “joint appointment in the history department and the Reves Center for International Studies,” for chairing the International Studies Committee and the Academic Status Committee,” among other duties.
“Perhaps most indicative of Lane’s commitment to students is his willingness to work with them on independent research,” McCord said.
In Lane’s case, that has meant setting up service-learning projects in Ecuador. Recently he helped five students teach English there. Although he, too, was in the country, he kept his distance, delighting as they benefited “from not being dependent on someone else’s structure” and by knowing they were doing “something to contribute,” Lane says.
Honor and Concern for William and MaryWilliamson is honored to join colleagues who previously received the Jefferson Award, although the recognition is not something he sought. “The school has been great to me,” he says. “It has given me the opportunity to do everything that I love to do. I’m the one who should be giving the honor to the school because this has been my life for over 30 years, and it’s been a good run.”
Lane remains self-effacing: Rather than talking about the award, he points to the contributions of his colleague, Judith Ewell. “With her, it’s been serving on committees, as department chair, encouraging younger faculty to apply for grants,” he says. He measures his place by her place. “She is going to retire,” he says. “I see myself slowly catching up to her and getting ready to take the baton as a Latin Americanist. It’s taken me awhile to accept that.”
It is obvious that both men see themselves as part of something bigger—an intangible thing called William and Mary. Each is invested, and each accepts the award with very real concerns about the College’s future.
“As somebody who’s been here for more than 30 years, it’s not the first period of lean times,” Williamson says. “There are good years and there are bad years. We have to be patient. This one may be different from the prior bust years. For one, it’s gone on for a long time.”
Lane also is worried. “I’m very upset that the state is pushing us up against a wall that will force tuition up,” he says. “That is unfortunate. Some of the best students I have mentored here are students who are not at the top with SATs, not at the top of their high schools, and for them William and Mary was an eye-opener. I think that public education at a first-rate institution is what is special about this College; there’s nothing else like it in this country that I know of. I’d hate to see that change; to see this become a College only of the privileged.”