Minnesota Law

Fall 2022
Faculty Focus

Celebrating Robert Stein '61 and His 50-Year Teaching Legacy

Prof. Robert Stein '61
Illustration: Robert Ball

In his 50 years teaching at Minnesota Law, Robert Stein ’61 has served as a transformational leader and beloved professor who helped reshape the school from stalwart regional player to national and international powerhouse. The Everett Fraser Professor of Law, Stein has brought deep and wide acclaim to Minnesota Law as a leader, scholar, teacher, and champion.

Garry W. Jenkins, dean and William S. Pattee professor of law, calls Stein a visionary leader who is one of the most important and influential figures in Minnesota Law history. Alumni frequently mention Stein when asked to name someone who made a difference in their education and career. “He’s shaped what it means to be a Minnesota Law lawyer, what it means to hold a J.D. from the University of Minnesota Law,” Jenkins says. “The degree we offer is more powerful, more meaningful because of Bob Stein and his work on behalf of the institution.”

Minnesota Law leaders began recruiting Stein to join the faculty immediately after he graduated from the Law School, impressed by his record-high cumulative GPA. He worked in private practice for a few years before becoming a professor in 1964, first teaching property law and real estate, later adding wills, trusts, and estate planning. The University tapped Stein to be vice president for administration and planning for two years before he was named dean of the Law School in 1979.

Stein served for 15 years, an incredibly long tenure for a dean, says Thomas Sullivan, Stein’s successor. Sullivan highlights three key areas where Stein made his mark: recruiting stellar faculty, helping build Minnesota Law’s Walter F. Mondale Hall, and cultivating strong relationships with alumni. 

“I know very well from personal and detailed information what a great dean Stein was,” says Sullivan, a professor emeritus at and former  president of the University of Vermont. “The great, outstanding faculty he hired—that is really the hallmark of his deanship—people who remain at the school and who went on to other distinguished universities, to national acclaim.”

A Transformative Leader

Oren Gross, the Irving Younger Professor of Law and associate dean for academic affairs, says Stein is an entrepreneur with a clear vision for making Minnesota Law a top-tier school. “As a dean, he really transformed the Law School, both from the perspective of the faculty and the students,” Gross says. “He set the tone at Minnesota that it’s the place you want to be.”

Legal stars listened to him. Stein reshaped the faculty during his tenure, Gross says. He built an endowment that grew the Law School’s endowed chairs from zero to 28 and the number of tenured women faculty from three to 11. He also helped increase students of color from 4 percent of the student body to 21.5 percent. In addition, Stein brought Minnesota Law onto the world stage by creating its first exchange program, with Uppsala University in Sweden in 1980. Later, he developed a similar program with Universite Jean Moulin in Lyon, France. On top of these accomplishments, Gross says Stein is a fantastic teacher.

‘I Love to Engage in Ideas’

For Stein, teaching has been a significant and beloved part of his career. He eagerly returned to Minnesota Law to teach after serving as executive director and chief operating officer of the American Bar Association for 12 years. Stein took on courses on the rule of law and the U.S. Supreme Court, covering the major cases that have shaped the nation.

He stays in contact with many former students and enjoys watching their careers unfold. “I love to engage in ideas with young people and learn from them as much as teach them,” Stein says. “As often as I teach a subject, it’s not uncommon for students to bring up a new insight. I enjoy the intellectual engagement that we have.”

One of Stein’s most significant contributions to the Law School was the Jurist in Resident program he founded to bring U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, William Rehnquist, and Harry Blackmun to the Law School. Later, Stein and his wife, Sandy, endowed the Robert A. Stein Lecture Series to host leaders from the bench and bar to speak at the University. Starting with former Vice President Walter F. Mondale ‘56 in 2013, the series has welcomed Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, Sonia Sotomayor, John Roberts, and Elena Kagan for lectures and interaction with students, faculty, and the legal community.

Stein says he developed the series because it is invaluable for students and faculty to gain exposure to jurists as people and learn more about their case selections, decisions, and role on the court.

 University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel points to the Stein Lecture as just one example of his impact on Minnesota Law and the University. “Bob is one of the foremost legal minds of our time, a leader, and trailblazer at the upper reaches of higher education, government, and the law,” Gabel says. “He’s someone who demonstrates that a life of purpose, impact, and service to others not only makes our University better but makes us all better.”

For his many contributions to Minnesota Law, Stein received the University’s Global Engagement Award in 2016 and the University President’s Award for Outstanding Service in 2017. 

Leadership both within the University and in the wider profession also have been vital aspects of Stein’s work. Former Minnesota Law Dean David Wippman, who is currently the president of Hamilton College, says that Stein’s history of Minnesota Law, In Pursuit of Excellence, is an apt description of his career, too. “I think about his work on the Uniform Law Commission, his leadership of the ABA, and all of the public service he’s done. Really, we, the Law School, the University, the State of Minnesota, and the country owe Bob a profound debt of gratitude.”

Suzy Frisch is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.