25 Years of the Wood Professorship: Featuring Dahlia Lithwick’s “Lady Justice”
On April 18th, 2023, the McCormack School hosted its 25th annual iteration of the Robert C. Wood Professorship in Public & Urban Affairs. Special guest and award recipient Dahlia Lithwick, a respected lawyer and legal correspondent and author on the U.S. judicial system, presented her new book Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America in a public lecture, which was followed by participation in a panel discussion with Professor Erin O’Brien (of Political Science) and Professor J. Shoshanna Ehrlich (of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies), moderated by McCormack interim Dean Rita Kiki Edozie.
Dean Edozie opened the event lauding the role that public interest and service education has on the John W. McCormack School’s educational fabric and how Robert C. Wood’s legacy embodies impact at the school. She remarked, “The lectureship is named Wood, who was the penultimate public servant—who served as president of the UMass System for seven years and was one of the nation's leading public intellectuals in the last half of the 20th century.”
McCormack’s senior advisor for outreach and engagement and Wood Committee chair, Marcy Murninghan, introduced Lithwick as an activist with the “voice of a prophet, the words of a poet, and the moral outrage of an active citizen who is deeply committed to the fight for justice and love.” Lithwick’s Lady Justice chronicles the work of women who have stood firm in the face of adversity during the four years of the Trump administration and persevered in their work.
According to Murninghan, celebrating 25 years since the establishment of the Wood Professorship, Lithwick’s lecture reflects a crossroads at which America’s relationship with its public institutions—perhaps, most saliently, the Supreme Court—has been fractured and challenged. And as a metacommentary on both the state of political affairs and the work of both individuals and institutions to preserve American democracy and challenge its erosion, it serves as a reminder of the work that McCormack, as an academic institution dedicated to public service, has completed since the inception of the Professorship, as well as the challenges that the school is prepared to address when faced with complex, evolving problems of great significance.
During her lecture, Lithwick spoke passionately about “be[ing] courageous in hard times… [for] democracy, the rule of law, for hope in the Constitution and a better world” while candidly reflecting that the period in which Lady Justice was steeped made it “difficult to remain hopeful.” Lithwick mused on the intensity of the redrafting process following a retraction of the book’s release in the wake of the verdict of Jackson v. Dobbs (2022), eliminating the near 50-year precedent of Roe v. Wade (1973) and ending a federally guaranteed right to abortion while paving the way for individual state governments to curtail and restrict the reproductive health rights of women across the country.
Lithwick broached important critical issues of our day. She spoke about the years following the departure of the Trump administration, observing that the Capitol riot of January 6th, 2021, and the intensifying erosion of the rights of women, BIPOC, vulnerable immigrants, and LGBTQ+ individuals (among others) marked decisions made by a growing conservative Supreme Court that was largely shaped by the Trump administration.
Lithwick’s book presented Lady Justice as “a love letter to law, the rule of law, the institutions of law and the women [...] who were out on the hustings, fighting for it” and a rallying cry against profound apathy in the face of contemporary challenges to the rule of law. She told the stories of “a handful of individuals who just refused to fall asleep after [the] 2016 [election].” These individuals included Sally Yates, the acting Attorney General of the United States, whose ten-day tenure in the position was marked by a refusal to defend a “lawless” travel ban against Muslim populations—and reflective of the potential held by an institution in which more people “simply [did] the principled thing” despite the challenges that await such individuals.
To be hopeful in the face of eroding trust of public institutions and challenges to the rule of law, Lithwick herself embodies the trajectories of these remarkable women—giants whose shoulders succeeding generations will stand on: “nameless, faceless giants who we also will never know—and all of those giants [...] did not know they were giants.”
Lithwick’s professorship marked the 25th anniversary of the Wood Professorship, offering a moment to reflect on the long journey of the McCormack School from its inception to the present day. From the establishment of the institution as a vehicle of public service, McCormack has stood at the cutting edge of public service and has continued to change with the times in a manner that is dynamic and forward-thinking.
As an institution preceding and supporting UMass Boston’s strategic planning initiative to stand “For The Times,” it could be argued that McCormack’s mission to continue its pursuit of “social justice and equity [...] seek[ing] to understand and remedy some of the most important social, political, economic, and environmental issues of our time” has scarcely been more relevant and important than it is today. And in celebration of the work of talented, devoted scholars like Dahlia Lithwick and the honorees who have presented their work within this unique institution, the Wood Professorship provides a kaleidoscope through which the School can reflect on supporting the work of community members through the years, evaluate the challenges of the contemporary era, and—in the words of McCormack interim Dean Edozie—arm its students with the tools they need to form the ranks of tomorrow’s public interest “agents of change".