|by Steve Charles • October 3, 2008|
A Man of Strong Beliefs, Deep Civility
A Tribute to Professor Ed McLean
Professor Emeritus of Political Science Ed McLean will be named an honorary alumnus of Wabash College at this year’s Homecoming Chapel. The following piece was published in Wabash Magazine Spring/Summer 2003 in honor of Professor McLean receiving the David Peck Medal for Eminence in the Law
Two conflicting images form my impression of Ed McLean at the Wabash podium. The first was burned into my memory after one of his talks in the Chapel, when I noticed one of his colleagues leaving the building in frustration, shaking his head and obviously angered by the professor’s conservative views.
I saw the second this March in Detchon Center, when Professor McLean wheeled himself to the podium to accept this year’s David Peck Medal for Eminence in the Law from the College’s Pre-Law Society—the alumni-student group he helped to create 30 years ago. The standing ovation lasted more than a minute, enough to bring a grateful smile and sparkle to the eyes of a man who spent much of the year fighting bad health.
There are dozens of stories behind such respect and admiration from some of the state’s most prominent attorneys, Indiana’s secretary of state, the Pre-Law society’s most supportive alumni, and some of the College’s most respected professors. As political science professor David Hadley says, Ed McLean is "no ordinary man, but one of strongly held beliefs, not all of them mainstream, who has provoked us to think more clearly about what we know and believe and do."
Those beliefs, that provocation, have been a part of McLean’s teaching that has benefited generations of Wabash students.
And they tell the story best.
A Deer in Headlights
"It was early in my freshman year, and many of us still had our "deer in headlights" eyes as we transitioned from the ease of high school to studying the Wabash way," recalls attorney Matt Griffith ’89, co-founder of the College’s Moot Court competition. "Professor McLean asked one of my fellow wide-eyed students his opinion on some political science theory, and the student spoke with great conviction. He could not have been more committed to his theory, as he tried to impress Professor McLean, mostly with enthusiasm, volume and emotion.
"He never saw it coming," Griffith says. " Slowly, Professor McLean engaged the student in a series of questions and answers. Fifteen minutes later, and unbeknownst to my highly-charged classmate, Professor McLean had him arguing against his original position with as much commitment as he had started his argument in the opposite direction!"
"One of Dr. McLean's greatest strengths as a teacher is his sharp and quick wit, hence his nickname, ‘Fast Eddy’," says attorney Scott Himsel ’85. "He engages students in a series of quick and challenging questions that allow the student to discover his unstated assumptions and perceive flaws in his logic. As a result, we learned to make more thoughtful arguments, critiqued arguments more skillfully, and learned how to stand our ground. It was the quintessential Wabash experience: to think critically and express ourselves persuasively."
"Professor McLean made it very clear that you needed to be prepared for class," attorney Bob Grand ’78 recalls. And you paid the price if you weren’t.
"I made the mistake of missing one of Professor McLean’s classes on constitutional law—a class with just three students," Griffith remembers. "The next time class was held, he ‘asked’ me if I would like to teach that day. He rose from his chair, pulled it to the far corner of the room, crossed his legs, and sat back to enjoy the show. Not another word was heard from him until the class was over. Needlees to say, I did not miss another class that semester!"
Griffith had the chance to see McLean’s questioning skills in a court setting, when the professor served as Montgomery County deputy prosecutor.
"He was examining a child support defendant—a big, tough man, who thought he would not be pushed around and told what to do. Twenty minutes and few dozen questions later, Professor McLean nearly had the man in tears from the guilt of not supporting his child. I bet the man made his future child support payments timely."
But such tactics were reserved for the courtroom.
"Professor McLean challenged students, but he was never argumentative, harsh, or mean," Griffith says. "He taught us, but he also challenged us to learn; with few words, he made it absolutely clear that it was our responsibility to learn. And that is a lesson I took with me to law school and now into practice."
McLean’s passion for the law became the catalyst for many of his students’ vocational path.
"He was the greatest influence in my decision to attend law school," recalls Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita ’92. "He helped me discover what I really wanted to do after Wabash."
"Taking constitutional law with Dr. McLean convinced me to pursue the study of law," says Grand. "He was always available to help a student; I remember stopping by often to talk about class or the law.’
Once aware of their vocation, McLean’s students fared well.
"I placed seventh in my entire law school my first year in a moot court competition, because Professor McLean had already taught me how to form an argument, articulate a position, listen to questions, and give well-reasoned, logical and structured answers," Griffith says. "Arguing against second and third-year law students was easy compared to discussing the law with Professor McLean in class!"
The McLean Legacy
"This semester, I attended one of Dr. McLean’s classes, 11 years after graduation, just to get one last formal dose of his teaching and thought processes," says Rokita. "He is the master of asking "why?" to any premise put forward. I employ that same analytical approach in my day-to-day work as secretary of state, asking, ‘Why does it have to be done this way?’ Things he taught me about the practice of political philosophy, I use everyday."
Other McLean students echo Rokita’s thoughts, and another—Scott Himsel—will carry McLean’s teaching forward at Wabash, teaching Constitutional Law this fall with John Agresto.
"I’m excited about teaching," Himsel says. "Dr. McLean’s courses were my first opportunity to study Supreme Court opinions and to debate Constitutional issues, and it was exciting and challenging, especially at Wabash where students and faculty thrive on that kind of intellectual engagement. To be able to carry that forward is a great honor."
Himsel has already tasted that intellectual engagement as a participant and judge in another of McLean’s legacies—the Moot Court competition. Griffith says the Wabash competition was inspired by McLean and his courses on Constitutional law.
But senior Seamus Boyce says that, even with such a legacy in place, McLean will be sorely missed on campus.
"He is a gentleman, a mentor, and teacher unlike any other," Boyce says. Interviewing the teacher for The Bachelor, Boyce took this advice to students from McLean.
"He warned us ‘not to make everything into a political issue,’" Boyce wrote. "All this creates is unneeded guilt and inefficient conflict. Each Wabash man is a person, not a political identity."
As professor Hadley—hardly one to see eye-to-eye with McLean ideologically —noted in a tribute to his colleague:
"Students found in Ed what we all have seen in him: a person of unwavering commitment to principles and strong belief in reason, who, at the same time, brought a deep civility, even gentility, to our discourses. As a teacher of politics and the law, he at times found himself facing views and positions which seemed wrong-headed or even distasteful to him. Never, however, in conversation or debate did he lose his civility or his commitment to humane values. This faculty has indeed been fortunate to have had such a colleague."
In photo: Attorney Chris Braun took time to thank his mentor Ed McLean during the 2007 Big Bash Reunion.