Campus News

New Chair in Politics and Law Honors Erwin Griswold

October 8, 2014

Marvin Krislov

Photo credit: John Seyfried

Creating the new Erwin N. Griswold ’25 Chair in Politics and Law, and selecting Professor Ronald Kahn as its inaugural occupant, honors Oberlin’s traditions of great undergraduate teaching, outstanding scholarship by our faculty, and the dedication to public service and towering professional achievements of a great alum.

Griswold, a Republican, served as United States Solicitor General under two presidents and was a long-serving and legendary dean of the Harvard Law School. When he passed away in 1994, the school issued a statement calling him, “a champion of civil rights and a foe of McCarthyism.”

But his is also a wonderful Oberlin story with roots stretching back well over a century. Erwin Griswold grew up in Cleveland, the son of a lawyer named James Harlen Griswold, Class of 1898, and Hope Erwin, who studied at the Oberlin Academy and the college, but received her degree from DePauw University in Indiana. James Wells Griswold, Erwin’s brother, also attended Oberlin, as did their uncle, Wells Griswold, who graduated in 1894. Erwin’s wife, Harriet, was the daughter of two of his father’s Oberlin classmates, Harry A. Ford and Stella Taber. Erwin and Harriet had two children, Hope Eleanor Murrow ’54 and William Erwin Griswold ’59.

As an Oberlin undergraduate, Erwin majored in mathematics and political science, and kept a meticulous record of coeds with whom he danced at nightly recreational dances. He roomed his junior year at 64 East College Street. That house was once home to Charles Martin Hall, who discovered the modern process for extracting aluminum from bauxite. Griswold’s roommate that year was Robert Millikan, the nephew of Robert A. Millikan, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who is also an Oberlin graduate.

In his book Ould Fields, New Corne: The Personal Memoirs of a Twentieth Century Lawyer, Griswold wrote fondly of his Oberlin days. He described his fellow students as “fine people, serious, conscientious, reasonably hard-working, honest and sincere, and I found them a remarkable group with whom to share experiences.”

I would argue that those same traits still apply to Oberlin students and alumni.

From Oberlin, Griswold went to Harvard Law School, graduating summa cum laude in 1928. After a brief stint with the firm of Griswold, Green, Palmer & Hadden in Cleveland, he went to work as a staff lawyer for the Solicitor General’s office in Washington, D.C. He soon became an expert in tax law and specialized in arguing tax cases before the Supreme Court. That happened, Griswold said later, because no one else in the firm wanted to take tax cases.

Griswold became one of the great experts in tax law. He returned to Harvard to teach and became dean of the law school in 1946. He held that post until 1967, and became one of the leading figures in American legal education. During his tenure, the school flourished. Perhaps influenced by his Oberlin coeducational roots, Griswold also oversaw the enrollment of the first female students at Harvard Law. That occurred in 1950. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the pioneers Griswold admitted, is now a Supreme Court Justice.

Erwin Griswold was known as a brilliant man, who was scrupulously fair. He also had a rare capacity, especially in so accomplished a person, to admit when he was wrong. As Solicitor General under President Richard M. Nixon, Griswold argued before the Supreme Court against allowing the New York Times and other newspapers from publishing the Pentagon Papers, a secret Defense Department history of the Vietnam War, claiming they represented a threat to national security. Years later, he admitted that he had “never seen any trace of a threat to national security from the publication.”

Griswold was devoted to Oberlin throughout his life. He was elected an Oberlin College trustee in 1936, and served until he retired in 1980. He remained active as an honorary trustee until his death in 1994. Griswold served on numerous board committees and was instrumental in securing the appointments of Oberlin Presidents William E. Stevenson and Robert Kenneth Carr in 1945 and 1959, respectively.

Through the years, the Griswold family has been among Oberlin’s staunchest supporters. Erwin, for example, established the James H. and Hope E. Griswold Fund, the Oberlin College Library’s largest endowed acquisitions fund, in memory of his parents.

Creating endowed professorships is one of the goals of our Oberlin Illuminate fundraising campaign. So I am delighted that Richard McMasters Hunt and Priscilla Stevenson Hunt ’51, chose to donate the funds that made the Erwin N. Griswold Chair in Politics and Law a reality. And I cannot think of a better inaugural professor than Ron Kahn, who is also the James Monroe Professor of Politics and Law at Oberlin College.

Professor Kahn specializes in teaching and studying constitutional law, legal theory, and American political development, and has published several books and articles on those topics. He has received a distinguished teaching award from Oberlin College, and from the Law and Courts Division of the American Political Science Association.

This coming Monday, October 13, Professor Kahn will present Oberlin’s Constitution Day lecture at 4:30 p.m. in Hallock Auditorium. I think Erwin Griswold would enjoy his topic, “Why Does a Conservative/Moderate Supreme Court on a Conservative Age Expand Individual Rights? Same-Sex Marriage, Guns, and Obamacare.”

I encourage you to attend.


The second event in our Strategic Plan Speaker Series will take place tomorrow evening, October 9, when Sylvia Hurtado of UCLA and Terrell Strayhorn of Ohio State University join us for “A Conversation About Diversity in Higher Education,” at 8:00 p.m, in the Science Center’s Dye Lecture Hall.

We are fortunate to have these nationally known scholars with us to discuss this important topic. They are both scholars known for their research on student development in college and the factors that affect historically underrepresented populations in education.

Associate Dean Meredith Raimondo, special assistant to the president for equity, diversity, and inclusion, will moderate the discussion. A Q&A with the audience will follow the discussion.


Some quick shout-outs to our scholar athletes. Congratulations to the women’s and men’s cross country teams for their fantastic showing in the All-Ohio meet this past weekend. Emma Lehmann ’15 beat 477 other runners to win the race. Geno Arthur ’16, became the first Yeoman runner to finish an 8K race under 25 minutes, clocking in at 25:49:11, to finish first among Division III runners and seventh overall.

Kudos are also due our women’s soccer team, which is currently riding an eight-game winning streak! Congratulations to the players and to Coach Dan Palmer. Go Yeo!


I always enjoy talking with and getting to know our students, especially first years. So if you’d like to meet, please join me on Monday, October 13 at 10:00 p.m. for Koffee with Krislov at Azariah’s in Mudd Library or call our office to set up an appointment during office hours.

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