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Law student favorite Werhan gets all-campus teaching medal

June 04, 2015

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Tulane Law Professor Keith Werhan wears his President’s Award for Excellence in Professional and Graduate Teaching, which he received at the Unified Commencement May 16, while preparing for the law school’s Diploma Ceremony with Professors Amy Gajda and Jane Johnson.

Outside of Weinmann Hall, Keith Werhan is known nationally as one of the country's most rigorous and thoughtful scholars on free speech, federalism and other thorny constitutional issues. To his students, however, Werhan is known for an even wider and more eclectic range of roles: mentor, movie consultant, yoga instructor and, for nearly three decades, one of Tulane Law School's most beloved teachers.

Graduating classes already have chosen him for Tulane Law’s highest honor, the Felix Frankfurter Distinguished Teaching Award, three times, in 1995, 2006 and 2012. Now, he’s been recognized with Tulane University's highest teaching honor, the President’s Award for Excellence in Professional and Graduate Teaching, which was presented at the May 16 Unified Commencement.  

The university-wide honor goes to a faculty member with a compelling record of excellence in teaching, learning and research and an ongoing commitment to educational excellence. The winner receives a medallion designed by late Professor Emeritus Franklin Adams and a $5,000 award.

Students praise Werhan, the fifth Tulane Law professor to win the President’s Award, for insightful instruction delivered in an inviting atmosphere. 

“Students prepare for his classes not because they are worried about being called to answer a challenging question, but because Professor Werhan inspires us to dig deeper and reach higher,” Dylan Lynch (L ’15) said in a letter supporting Werhan’s nomination for the all-campus award.

Alexis Ruiz (L ’16) said Werhan helps students feel comfortable speaking in class even when they aren’t certain they know the answer. “His teaching style creates a safe learning environment for students and facilitates the learning process for the whole classroom,” she said.

Werhan, who holds the Ashton Phelps Chair of Constitutional Law, isn’t a podium-hugger. He walks among his students to hold a conversation about constitutional issues, working from the meaning of “We the People” to more-complicated notions, such as why the First Amendment protects anarchists and academics alike. He tries to foster mutual respect in order to encourage honest discussion.

“My idea of a good class is one in which students’ preconceived notions of the problems and solutions are shaken up,” Werhan said. “It’s destabilizing but also reintegrating. I try to challenge students’ understanding of the concepts so that when they resettle, they’re in a deeper and clearer place.”

The author of more than two dozen books, chapters and articles, Werhan is widely recognized for his legal expertise on the Constitution, administrative law and federal jurisdiction. News media often seek his analysis on court rulings involving difficult constitutional law issues. His article “Regulatory federalism, shaken not stirred,” analyzing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 rulings on Arizona’s immigration restrictions and on the Affordable Care Act, was published in the University of Virginia School of Law’s Journal of Law & Politics, and a second edition of his textbook Principles of Administrative Law was printed in 2014. He is at work on a book on Athenian democracy and the U.S. Constitution to be published by Oxford University Press.

Yet, Werhan's renown and ambition as a scholar is equaled by his dedication to the craft of teaching and mentoring students.

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A perennial student favorite, Professor Keith Werhan also served as a constitutional law consultant to the 1993 movie “The Pelican Brief” when it was filmed at Tulane Law School, writing a classroom scene and coaching actor Sam Shepard, who played a law professor.

Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano 

Actress Julia Roberts got a taste of Werhan’s teaching when the 1993 movie “The Pelican Brief” was filmed at Joseph Merrick Jones Hall, the law school’s home at the time. The film is based on a John Grisham novel in which a Tulane law student uncovers a dark conspiracy reaching all the way to the Supreme Court. 

Werhan served as a constitutional law consultant, wrote the classroom scene and coached actor Sam Shepard, who played a law professor. But, when Roberts researched her student role by sitting in on Werhan’s class when it dissected Roe v. Wade, he declined to call on her when she raised her hand and attempted to answer his questions.

He later explained to the astonished actor that his duty in the classroom was to his students, and she wasn't really part of his class.

Werhan works with students in numerous ways outside the classroom. He served as vice dean in 1995-98. And he recently has brought a burgeoning appreciation of yoga and contemplation to help students learn to manage stress through two programs: regular yoga classes he teaches at the law school and “Mindful Lawyering” workshops initiated in the spring with Professor Pam Metzger.

“Yoga teaches that the primary cause of suffering is identifying yourself with the outcomes of your actions instead of focusing on the process,” Werhan said. “It’s important to focus on what we can control, which is our effort and work, and not the outcomes that are outside our control.” 

He said the goal is to help students learn to maintain perspective, both in school and later when they’re working. For instance, students can overcome disappointment over exam grades by taking pride in the quality of their work instead of focusing on things they can’t control, such as a professor’s grading curve. Practitioners should remember that their worth doesn’t depend solely on their legal wins and losses.

Chloé Chetta (L ’15) called Werhan “one of the kindest people I have ever met” in his approach to students’ well-being. “He encourages us all to stay relaxed and well throughout the semester and especially during finals, reminds us that law school is but a small part in a large legal career and enjoys hearing about students becoming involved in their community and just generally enjoying life,” she said.

Werhan is set to offer late evening and early morning yoga sessions for volunteers who take part in the annual fall Sleep Out to raise funds and awareness for New Orleans’ Covenant House, which serves homeless and at-risk youths 16-21 years old. His partnership with Covenant House began when he volunteered for the 2014 Sleep Out.

“I met lots of really interesting, good-hearted people, and seeing the different ways in which people engage in their communities was very inspiring to me,” Werhan said. 

It’s an example of his efforts to continue learning while teaching others.

After nearly 30 years at Tulane Law, Werhan says, his understanding of the law continues evolving because the topics he covers and the steady flow of students’ ideas keep his classes fresh. 

“I still come out of class thinking differently about the material than I did before,” he said. “One of the things I enjoy most about teaching is that working together we can accomplish much more than we would alone.”


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