Decades Later, Class of ’76 Honors its Commencement Speaker: Ruth Bader Ginsburg
In June 1976, a law professor from Columbia University took the stage at Northrop Auditorium to deliver a commencement address that would stick in the minds of that year’s Minnesota Law graduates. The speaker was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who would go on to champion litigation on behalf of women’s rights and serve for nearly three decades as a justice on the US Supreme Court.
“It was remarkable that we had this incredibly accomplished woman speaking at our graduation and none of us knew at the time what she would become,” says Cynthia Rosenblatt ’76, founder of the law firm Ross Rosenblatt.
Fast forward to last year, and that same graduating class was planning their 45th reunion. A committee of alumni rallied around the idea of launching a scholarship. Norm Bjornnes ’76, who served as part of the reunion committee, says they thought back to that commencement address and decided to name the scholarship after the late Justice Ginsburg to acknowledge her many accomplishments. There was another Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1976 reason that it was such a good fit, too: the Class of 1976 had been at the vanguard of a sea change in women’s attendance in law schools.
“The proportion of women in our class was a much higher percentage than previous classes,” says Bjornnes, noting that the committee resolved to make the scholarship open to all applicants but to give precedent to women students. “Between Justice Ginsberg being a pioneer, a thought leader, and a beacon for women, and our class having a spike in women,it seemed fitting that the scholarship should favor women applicants.”
Bjornnes, whose career has focused on real estate law, tax law, and estate planning, is currently of counsel at Mulligan Bjornnes, a firm he founded with a fellow classmate. He recalls his own time in law school fondly.
“My legal education probably made my life as fulfilling as any choice I could have made,” he says. “I made lifelong friends, and it provided an opportunity for me to achieve pretty much of all the dreams I had for myself.”
Hoping to open up this same experience for today’s law students, he and Rosenblatt were among those who made early gifts to the new Class of 1976 Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Scholarship in Law. Their initiative soon inspired others to band together and contribute their own support. The effort was a success.
This summer, the first recipient of the scholarship was named: Meghan Zula, 1L. Since high school, Zula had known she wanted to study law. The constitutional law classes she took as an undergraduate at Michigan State University only reinforced her interest. Now, she is deciding between a concentration
in either business law or intellectual property and technology law.
Considering the cost of pursuing a degree in law—and the debt that would come with it—Zula says the scholarship will make a huge impact in her life.
“It is an incredible honor to have been considered for, and then granted, this scholarship by the Class of 1976, especially with such a large, impactful name attached,” she says. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a lot of people’s role model. She’s someone to aspire to be like and to have as much of an impact as for the better of this country.”
Jean Hanson ’76, who also helped launch the new scholarship, knows what a difference financial support can make. The recipient of another scholarship to which Hanson contributes recently shared that the assistance was the only way she was able to attend law school and pursue her dreams.
“I give from a grateful heart, thankful for what I have received, and I want to make the opportunity that was afforded to me available to others,” says Hanson, a retired partner with Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson in New York City and a former general counsel at the US Department of the Treasury. “I asked only that she pay it forward and, if she is able, give a gift to a future student who will follow in her footsteps and, one day, be able to write her a heartfelt letter like the one she had written to me.”
The idea of paying generosity forward resonates with Rosenblatt. It’s one reason she sees the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Scholarship as such an important opportunity for her graduating class.
“The Class of ’76 is at a point in their lives when they can afford to be generous; we should all be giving back by now,” she says. “To know that there’s somebody out there who’s benefiting from this scholarship is just terrific.”