Stanford’s Office for Religious Life sponsors a speaker series “What Matters to Me and Why.” The series features faculty and administrators addressing life questions, the aim to encourage reflection within the Stanford community in matters of personal values, beliefs, and motivations in order to better understand the lives of those who shape the university. Below are excerpts of the speech that Dean Magill gave as part of this series in November 2017.

M. Elizabeth Magill
Dean M. Elizabeth Magill (photo by Edward Caldwell)

NUMBER 1: DON’T THINK ABOUT ME; THINK ABOUT THEM. The first strikes a bit of an ungracious note. I have always been flattered to be asked to give this talk, but I have long hesitated to do it. That is because giving this talk suggests that my personal story is important. But I don’t think my story is important.

It’s now a given that the personal story is all. If you ever talk to a speech coach, you will be told that you must tell a story, ideally a personal one. Watch some TED talks. Speakers introduce their life’s work—their greatest passion, their Nobel Prize-winning work, or what got them a Pulitzer—through a personal story, something about them from third grade. I think this is a wrong turn for many reasons.

Philosophically, I believe I should be attentive to the experiences of large groups of people, not just single individuals. The experiences and views of the many are not the same as those of the one. The one is usually unrepresentative. And when we focus on the one, we let fall away all that leads to
that one person’s contributions—we get that self-made hero or genius, which I think in many cases is a myth.

The other objection is more personal. I don’t like talking about myself; I don’t want to be the center of the story; I am better at what I do when I am focused on the other. Self-obsession and self-involvement are natural human tendencies, ones I believe we should fight against. I fear that we spend entirely too much time thinking about things from ourselves out, and not the other way around, which is starting with the other and how we can relate to the other.

So, given this, why am I here? Well, if I do anything well, it is because I have learned it from others—from the models they have set and, yes, from my understanding of their personal values and motivations. On the off chance that this talk prompts some of the learning and reflection that I have benefited from, I said yes.

NUMBER 2: GRATITUDE. I know, gratitude is a Hallmark- card idea. But other than the things that drive me professionally, which I will get to shortly, this is my most important value and belief. There are the very big, cosmic things that I am grateful for. I was born in 1965 in Fargo, North Dakota. A hundred years earlier, in 1865, the Civil War would have just ended; life expectancy would have been 40 years; women were not legal persons. But life expectancy for those born in 1965 like me is just over 70 years and women can do much more than own property and vote. I was born in a prosperous country. There are a lot of other things on this list: there were no tornadoes through my town, no dustbowl, no fatal illnesses or accidents of loved ones.

Then there are the things personal to me that I am grateful for. I was born healthy and with innate talents that I did nothing to deserve. I had parents who were devoted to me and my five siblings and we did not worry about food, housing, clothing. My parents wanted us to be good people, to find productive work, to be useful to the society that we lived in. They each had their own special qualities I am grateful for—my mother loved fun, took joy in others, and my father, who had a childhood with a lot of material deprivation, treated the whole of his adult life as one lucky thing after another. I have even more to be grateful for in my own little family—particularly in my good luck in finding my husband. We have been together for nearly thirty years, through much that was thick and some that was a little thinner. Our relationship has sustained me—together, our lives are more meaningful and joyous than I ever could have imagined.

Then there is the gratitude for the many people outside of my family who have made my life what it is. There are the many teachers—the high school sophomore composition teacher who taught me how to write, the guidance counselor who advised me where to apply to college, and the Yale admissions officer who liked my application (and, truth be told, probably needed someone from North Dakota).

In law school, I had several teachers who taught me, talked to me about my desire to be a law teacher, who supervised papers I wrote, reacting to them and advising me on them, and one who co-authored a paper with me. Several of them made what still seem to me heroic efforts to get me a series of jobs that have led to the most exciting and rewarding professional opportunities of my life—clerking on the Supreme Court for Justice Ginsburg, becoming an assistant professor and then a professor, and, ultimately, leading me here to Stanford five years ago.

“The pursuit and accumulation of knowledge have been the most powerful forces in improving and enriching the lives of people on this planet. Spending my life at institutions devoted to the creation and transmission of knowledge is about as good as it gets.”


Then there are the mentors and bosses in my professional life. I was hired for my first job by a woman who took a chance on me and that job changed the rest of my life for the better. As a junior professor, I had many models of great scholars, teachers, and mentors.

I have had heartbreak and bad luck in my life, less of it than many, more of it than some. But, there are a whole lot of cherries on the top of my ice cream sundae, including what I have learned and how I’ve grown from the heartbreak and occasional bits of bad luck.

NUMBER 3: PURSUIT OF KNOWLEDGE. The creation, discovery, and transmission of knowledge matter deeply to me. My belief in and passion for the power of knowledge began where you might expect, in my undergraduate classrooms. Professor Nancy Cott’s book, The Bonds of Womanhood, profoundly challenged what I thought I knew. In her classes and in that book, I saw the ways in which women created influence and strength out of what was available to them, using limitations on their freedom as a source of social power and even a type of political power. Professor William Cronon’s book Changes in the Land blew my mind. In this book was the story of colonial New England—we’d all learned it before. But this version of the history told about the relationship between colonists, Native Americans, and the way they interacted with their environment—the land, the plants, the animals. It has an entire chapter on beavers! Like Professor Cott’s book, it was chock full of things I did not know and provided an entirely different way of looking at a well-known story.

In law school, I had a similar experience. I was deeply affected by, inspired by, the work of two scholars, John Hart Ely and Michael Klarman, JD ’83. John Hart Ely’s book, called Democracy and Distrust, puts forward a theory about when the courts should invalidate the acts of the elected branches of government. The provisions of the Constitution are open-textured and not simple to interpret; it takes a theory of interpretation to do it. That is a book I read dozens and dozens of times, trying to fully grasp the nuances of the argument, its implications, and its shortcomings. Michael Klarman’s body of scholarship sets forth an argument that I deeply resisted and fought, but in the end had to accept as powerful in the face of the avalanche of meticulously assembled evidence. That thesis, in short, is that the courts rarely act outside of mainstream elite views. Our heroic view of the courts as protectors of minority rights is—mostly—a myth and questionable as a matter of theory in any event.

Needless to say, my reaction to the knowledge creation these scholars were doing so inspired me that my ambition was to spend my life in a research university, to both advance and transmit knowledge as my professional life and to be in a community of people similarly devoted to those ends.

Why is this important to me? The pursuit of knowledge, to discovery, seems to me an unalloyed good, akin to ice cream or kindness or apple pie or the Beatles. It is obvious to me that the pursuit of knowledge is a good; why it resonated with me so much so that I wanted to spend my life around people devoted to it is a harder question. The pursuit and accumulation of knowledge have been the most powerful forces in improving and enriching the lives of people on this planet, and the health of this planet. Spending my life at institutions devoted to the creation and transmission of knowledge is about as good as it gets.

NUMBER 4: FACTS. The last thing I want to identify as important to me is discovering, testing, and establishing facts. I know, this is a species of knowledge creation so 4 is really part of 3. But as someone with training as a lawyer and as a student of legal systems, I have a particular commitment to the importance of testing and establishing facts and an understanding of what goes wrong when we cannot or do not do that.

Whether we can establish facts any more, and whether we can agree on them, is of course the topic of much hand-wringing today. A common intuition is that we are in a state of crisis over what is and is not a fact because of our many divisions that fuel our inability to agree on facts. But this cannot be right. It is just not the case that we are more divided today on matters of great importance than we or any other society has ever been. Compared with the Revolutionary War? The Founding? The lead up to and the Civil War? Reconstruction? Profound divisions have existed here (and in many other nations) many times before.

What is different today, it seems to me, is that technological and digital change makes it difficult to know whether what we are reading, or seeing, or hearing is “true.” Is that actually my neighbor (or the president of France) who is talking in that video that was just sent to me? Is this email from my colleague? Am I to believe that what I am observing is happening?

In an age of social media, bots, artificial intelligence, digital manipulation of voices and video, hacking, and hijacking of personality—we are experiencing something new. New in good ways of course: We are more connected to one another, our sources of information are broader, and these tools are both a reflection of and have unleashed creativity. But this is new in bad ways too: We are much more vulnerable to being convinced of the truth of something that has no basis.

We should all be disturbed by this. If we cannot establish, test, and agree on facts, our capacity to generate knowledge will be degraded. Nothing less than the values of the Enlightenment are at stake, in my view. But, for now, let me get a little less lofty and talk about the lawyers’ perspective on this.

Those with training in law have special reasons to worry about this threat. The design of all established legal systems reflects serious thought about how facts are to be established and tested. I suspect you all know the phrase “facts are stubborn things,” and the famous story associated with it well illustrates why legal systems are devoted to careful methods by which we must establish facts. The phrase came from the mouth of a lawyer, uttered by the country’s second president, John Adams, 27 years before he was elected president. It was part of his closing argument as he defended a group of British soldiers—a reviled and hated group of soldiers—who were accused of murdering colonists in what we now commonly call the Boston Massacre.

I suspect you know the story of the Boston Massacre. In David McCullough’s telling, late on the snowy evening of March 5, 1770, a single British sentry was being taunted by a group of colonists. A church bell (which served as a fire alarm) rang and crowds came into the streets, and many came from the waterfront with sticks and clubs. Several hundred gathered around the guard who was then reinforced by eight British soldiers. The soldiers were hit with oyster shells, sticks, trash, and there were cries of “kill them, kill them.” In the chaos, the soldiers opened fire, ultimately killing five men.

Seizing an opportunity, many patriots capitalized on the event to stoke anti-British sentiment. Samuel Adams called the killings “bloody butchery.” Paul Revere, a great propagandist, had a major hand in creating and distributing a famous engraving that depicted the event as a slaughter—with British troops in red coats lined up, in the light of day, opening fire on the colonists.

The day after the event, John Adams, then 34, was asked to defend the British soldiers and their captain. He accepted on principle—the principle that no one should be denied the right to counsel and a fair trial. But, after studying the facts, he became convinced of the actual innocence of the soldiers and that they had acted in self-defense. It was in this context that, after an exhaustive review of the evidence adduced at trial, he closed his argument to the jury in this way: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

In the end, Adams obtained acquittals for the captain and six of the soldiers; the remaining two soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter, not murder. Late in life, he called it the most exhausting case he ever undertook, but “one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered for my country.”

The lesson of Adams and the trial is one that has been proved repeatedly throughout the history of legal systems. There are countless examples of tragedies and injustices that occur if a legal system does not have a workable system for the establishment and testing of facts—either because partic pants don’t even try, as when the mob takes over and dispenses its own brutal justice, or because the guardians of the system of fact-finding fail. It is very predictable who suffers and it is not the powerful. It is the people at the margins, the outnumbered, the hated— the nine young African-American men jailed in Scottsboro and nearly murdered by a mob only later to be subjected to show trials, or the poor drifter Clarence Earl Gideon convicted without a lawyer on the testimony that was later picked apart easily when he did have a lawyer. There is no mystery about what will happen, and who will suffer, if fact-finding breaks down.

So I come to my commitment to facts pretty honestly given the profession I’ve chosen—studying and teaching law and training lawyers. There have always been threats to our ability to establish facts, but I am convinced that we are facing new and different ones these days. I have confidence we will make progress on this, but this threat has just deepened my belief that facts matter. SL