Geoffrey Stone Marks a Half Century of Teaching

Line illustration of Geoffrey Stone
Illustration by Bruce Morser

When Geoffrey R. Stone, ’71, started his senior year at the University of Pennsylvania in 1967, he had no idea what he would do next. It was the height of the Vietnam War and like many of his male classmates, he thought about attending graduate school. But he was not sure what he wanted to study. Anthropology seemed to pull him, but he ultimately chose the law because he felt it could be used as a vehicle for social change.

Fast forward to today, and Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Professor of Law, is a preeminent authority on civil rights and constitutional law and one of the nation’s best-respected civil libertarians.

The impact he has had in the world of academia and beyond cannot be overstated. In just the past ten years, Stone was called on by President Obama to examine the country’s national security policy in the wake of the Edward Snowden leak, helped guide the White House in addressing sexual violence on college campuses, and coauthored an amicus brief in the historic Obergefell v. Hodges case.

His influence stretches far and wide, but throughout his career Stone has remained steadfastly committed to the Law School and the University that he has called home for the last fifty years. Over the decades, he has taught an estimated 8,000 students, served as Law School Dean, served as University Provost, and led many committees that have shaped key University policies and initiatives, including, most notably, the Chicago Principles. The American Constitution Society duly named him a “legal legend” in 2012, which he surely remains to this day.

Finding His Calling

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Originally from the East Coast, Stone had never been to the Midwest before enrolling at the Law School. He had turned down acceptances to Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, starting himself down a path that back then he could have scarcely imagined. When he arrived at the Law School, his uncertainty about his vocation quickly disappeared. He thrived during his years as a student, serving as editor in chief of the Law Review before graduating cum laude.

Stone went on to clerk for US Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. and Judge J. Skelly Wright on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. Afterward, he found himself at another crossroads: continue working or teach. He was unsure about a career in academia, but one of his favorite professors, Owen Fiss, insisted that Stone interview for a faculty position at the Law School.

He finally relented, and to his surprise enjoyed the interview. (Wanting to challenge the faculty, in true Geof Stone fashion, he had given a presentation on how heroin addicts have a constitutional right to purchase and possess heroin.)

In 1973, Stone joined the faculty.

“It seems like only yesterday when I taught my first course, Civil Procedure, in the fall of 1973. I still vividly remember the students in that class and am still in touch with more than a few of them,” said Stone. “I still love teaching, interacting with students, and having them to my home for dinner (occasionally). Like my remarkable colleagues, our students are smart, curious, hard-working, and challenging. Teaching is a joy.”

In his early years of teaching, Stone describes himself as a hippie. He had long hair and a beard and was the only faculty member who didn’t wear a tie. He rose through the ranks and had several title changes, starting with “the Harry Kalven, Jr. Professor of Law” in 1984. It seemed fitting, as Stone says many of his ideas at the time were inspired by Kalven, with whom he’d worked closely and looked up to when he first joined the faculty.

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Evolving as a teacher, Stone soon established himself as a great innovator in the classroom. One of his lasting legacies is his seminar on constitutional decision-making, which he designed to give students a deeper understanding of the judicial process. The seminar became hugely popular and eventually made its way to other schools, often carried over by former students who became law professors themselves. It continues to captivate new generations of students at the Law School.

“Professor Stone made incredibly complex, nuanced, and frustrating areas of law enjoyable learning experiences,” said Jimmie Zahn, ’17. “What made the greatest impression on me as his student, however, was not his intellectual horsepower and scholarship, but his patience and kindness. In an industry where ability is often correlated with arrogance, I have only grown more appreciative of the traits that Stone possesses.”

His passion for transformative instruction did not go unnoticed. In 2006, he received the University’s Provost Award for Outstanding Teaching. In 2021, he was recognized with the University’s Norman Maclean Award, which honors senior faculty for extraordinary contributions to teaching and to the student experience. Even while serving as dean of the Law School and provost for the University, Stone was in the classroom.

“Professor Stone clearly drew energy from his students. No one left his classes unchallenged,” said Bjarne P. Tellmann, ’95. “His class on the First Amendment profoundly impacted my thinking about free speech because he taught us to think deeply about the amendment’s limits along with our values and all the assumptions and prejudices that America continues to confront.”

A Visionary Dean and Devoted Mentor

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Outside the classroom, Stone began to get more involved in administrative responsibilities at the Law School and the University. In the 1980s, he chaired nearly every major committee at the Law School, from the Faculty Appointments Committee to the Admissions Committee. He grew particularly invested in attracting the most dynamic and promising young scholars to the faculty—a pursuit he continued to champion when he became the Law School’s ninth dean from 1987 to 1993.

Stone oversaw the hiring of many prominent faculty during his time as dean. He brought on future President Barack Obama and future US Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, as well as commercial law scholar Randal C. Picker and criminal and juvenile law expert Herschella Conyers, who this year celebrated a 30-year teaching milestone. But his efforts to recruit brilliant faculty didn’t end there; Stone was a devoted mentor. He took time to show young faculty the ropes.

“Geof has had a tremendous impact on my career. He convinced me to be a Bigelow Fellow,” Genevieve Lakier, Professor of Law and Herbert & Marjorie Fried Teaching Scholar, said. “He mentored me, respectfully but effectively, during my first few years of teaching, urging me to not be afraid to add to the conversation. Face-to-face, he can be very tough. But he is also supportive. I am sure he brings this same amazing double-edged mentorship to students.”

As dean, Stone nurtured a supportive and collegial environment for both faculty and students. He enabled students to have direct input on faculty committees, implemented quarterly town halls, and ushered in new academic and social organizations, like the Law School’s Public Service Program and the Law and Government Program, the latter of which promoted joint faculty appointments with other schools across the University.

Deeply committed to academic enterprise and encouraging a spirit of collaboration, Stone established the Law School’s celebrated Work-in-Progress (WIP) workshop for faculty. Convening weekly, WIP provides a space for faculty to present their papers to their colleagues and engage in lively discussions. The tradition continues to be a vital part of the Law School’s culture to this day.

“Stone is a most worthy successor to many legendary figures from the Law School’s rich past,” said Douglas Baird, the Harry A. Bigelow Distinguished Service Professor of Law, who is also a former dean of the Law School. “He instilled the same passion for teaching in generations of his colleagues and his insights into constitutional law have reshaped the way we think about free speech. His commitment to robust, honest, and civilized discourse epitomizes what is special about the University of Chicago.”

A Strategic University Leader

During his seventh year as dean, Stone was tapped to serve as provost from 1994 to 2002, expanding his impact within the UChicago community even further.

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In what was perhaps one of his most important contributions, Stone chaired the University’s Committee on Freedom of Expression, which in 2014 issued the seminal statement on academic free expression and from which the Chicago Principles were born. Stone’s role in drafting the principles is a lasting part of his legacy and has made him an icon in the world of academic free expression.

Yet just as significantly, though not as widely known, Stone successfully navigated the University through two major events during his seven years as provost.

He guided the University through one of its most tumultuous budget challenges in the 1990s, when financial trends at the time had plunged UChicago into the red. Restructuring the budget process to strengthen the University’s financial position for the short term and long term was his focus during his first years as provost.

Beyond that, as chair of the University’s Planning and Budget Committee, Stone was diligent and strategic in his allocation of resources. He paid special attention to bolstering funds for faculty salaries and scholarship, increasing stipends for graduate assistants, and improving the overall quality of student life across all areas of the University.

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The second major event he led the University through was its two-year Campus Master Planning Process in the late 1990s, which culminated in the creation and revitalization of several areas around campus, including the Max Palevsky Residential Commons, the Bartlett Dining Commons, the Ratner Athletics Center, the Interdivisional Research Building, and improvements on the Midway Plaisance. He was also instrumental in establishing the Biopsychological Sciences Building, which opened in 1998.

Strategic in his leadership, Stone as provost worked tirelessly to ensure the University was positioned for continued success for every member of its community. When he finally stepped down to return to teaching and research, he was, at that point, the longest-serving provost in the history of the University.

“Geof’s contributions to the Law School, the University, and the legal academy are towering,” said Dean Thomas J. Miles, the Clifton R. Musser Professor of Law and Economics. “He is a distinguished scholar who has expanded the understanding of the Constitution, especially the First Amendment. As dean, he built the eminence of the Law School and inspired an enduring commitment to teaching. As provost during a critical moment, he set the University on a trajectory of unprecedented success. He led a highly influential affirmation of the University’s commitment to free inquiry, and he is a fearless and irreplaceable advocate for the freedom to speak and discuss.”

A Scholarly Giant

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Looking at the breadth of his career, Stone’s teaching and leadership are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his accomplishments.

A prolific scholar, Stone has written more than 20 books, contributed chapters to 100 more, and served as the lead editor for 35. He has authored 117 law review articles and served as chief editor for ten editions of one of our nation’s leading constitutional law casebooks and seven editions of a leading casebook on the First Amendment. As if these were not enough, he has written almost 500 news articles and editorials.

During his time as provost, Stone coedited eight volumes of the Supreme Court Review, the leading journal of constitutional law read by academics, judges, and practitioners the world over since 1991. He continues to hold the coeditor role today. He has also edited a 25-volume series on constitutional law, known as Inalienable Rights, which includes books by such authors as Richard Posner, Laurence Tribe, Martha Minow, and Owen Fiss, to name just a few. And he has served on the editorial advisory board of Political Science Quarterly since 2005.

Stone’s publications have won many national awards, and over his lengthy career, he has weighed in on some of the highest-profile issues of our time at the highest levels of all three branches of government.

Lee C. Bollinger, president emeritus of Columbia University, who has written and edited six books with Stone, with another two in the works, noted that Stone has provided the historical and general context for why the First Amendment has been interpreted in the ways it has over the last half century: “His books, essays, and law review articles bring to life how the nation has at times gone astray and let the mind of censorship punish dissent and stunt public discussion.”

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Both Bollinger and Lakier point out that Stone was the first to recognize the significance of the Burger Court’s discovery of a content neutrality principle in the First Amendment. He plumbed the principle’s complexities and depths, and his arguments continue to significantly shape the conversation.

These days, Stone is concerned about American democracy and politics, which is evident in his latest two books with Bollinger, one about the decisions in Roe and Dobbs published earlier this year and another about the constitutionality of affirmative action, published earlier last year.

But what is also evident is his unwavering determination to continue to ask questions, challenge ideas, and have the conversations necessary to analyze current issues and find ways to move forward. As a scholar, Stone has made a profound impact on the legal world. And as the world continues to evolve, so too do Geof Stone’s ideas which keep him very busy. He currently has two book projects in the works, one on the future of free speech and another on campaign finance and the First Amendment.

“It is quite astonishing to think that I have been on the faculty for more than half a century,” reflected Stone. “I have loved the University and the Law School throughout these years, most of all because of our distinctive commitment to free and open intellectual discourse and disagreement. No other law school or university is so deeply committed to these values. This is what makes us special, and what makes us truly the nation’s champion of academic freedom. This is what I most admire about this institution. We constantly and courageously question and challenge one another in a vigorous and never-ending quest to learn.”

Claire L. Parins is the Senior Director of Academic Publications at the Law School.

Nadia Alfadel Coloma is the Associate Director of Content at the Law School.