Columbia Law School Professor Emeritus Robert A. Ferguson—a man of letters whose expansive, category-hopping approach to legal scholarship ranged from a critically acclaimed book on the plight of the incarcerated to a historical study of court trials as public, political, and literary events—died on July 1, 2017 after a long battle with cancer at 75.
Ferguson joined the Columbia University English Department faculty in 1989 and over the course of his quarter-century association with the University, received many honors and fellowships, including the Law School’s Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching in 2003, and the Columbia University Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1998. He became a full-time member of the Law School faculty in 1995, and served as the George Edward Woodberry Professor of Law, Literature, and Criticism until his retirement in 2016.
“Robert was a distinguished and trailblazing scholar, a master teacher, a deeply engaged faculty citizen, and a devoted member of the Columbia Law School community,” said Dean Gillian Lester, the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law.
At a Law School tribute in February 2016 in honor of Ferguson’s retirement, Vice Dean and Professor Jamal Greene called Ferguson “a most worthy successor” to a previous holder of the George Edward Woodberry chair, the great American literary critic Lionel Trilling.
In addition to being a “great writer,” Greene said, Ferguson was also a great teacher. He then read from student evaluations of Ferguson’s classes, noting these evaluations were “replete with references to how fastidious is his preparation for class, how much respect he shows his students, how he shows them the kind of empathy for their projects, plans, and problems that Robert so dearly wishes the world showed to everyone, including its prisoners.” One student wrote, “What I have learned from Professor Ferguson will carry me through my life both as a lawyer and as a person.”
Ferguson graduated from Harvard College in 1964. (His writing career began at The Harvard Crimson, where he served as a sports reporter.) After spending a year at the London School of Economics on a Fulbright Scholarship, Ferguson returned to his alma mater, earning a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1968 and a Ph.D. in American civilization from Harvard University in 1974. Before arriving at Columbia in 1989, he was a member of the University of Chicago’s English department for 14 years, serving as the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities from 1987 to 1989. As a visiting professor, Ferguson taught English at Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, and law at the University of Chicago and Yale.
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