A Former Student (Now Professor) Remembers Robert Ferguson
[Editor's Note: My remembrance of my late colleague Robert Ferguson prompted Ori Herstein to recall Robert from his vantage. Ori's memorial follows.]
For Robert A. Ferguson (1942-2017)
It was from a letter that I came to form my first impressions of Robert Ferguson. Robert was writing to welcome Columbia Law School’s 2004 incoming class of doctoral students. In time, he became a mentor to us all. Looking back, much of what I came to admire in the man was evident in this first of many correspondences that we would exchange over the following thirteen years. For Robert, self-regard and regard for those around him were like two sides of the same sheet of paper. Which is why if he were writing to welcome his new students, he would compose an actual letter not an email. And he would print it on posh formal stationary. And take the time to individually address and hand sign all twelve of them. Robert’s letter was of course well-fashioned, striking a balance between setting expectations and conveying warmth; between giving respect and garnering it. A literary connoisseur and devotee of the English language, for him these letters served as the first opportunity of many to instill in his students his reverence for the Sisyphean craft of writing. I still have that letter. And I still remember how it sparked my anticipation for the hard work to come and how it made me feel bigger, welcome, and that I belonged.
My indelible impression from our correspondence and conversations over the years is that apart from family – often expressing his love and devotion to his wife – Robert cherished nothing more than learning, writing, and his students. And although he certainly had his share of honors, prestige, academic influence, and financial reward, these did not seem to number among his motivations. Like others amongst his students, I am forever grateful for his devotion, wisdom, friendship, and non-wavering support.
Robert set a model for how to conduct oneself as a teacher and, most of all, as a mentor to graduate students. His attentive, kind, and gracious way of comporting himself – in matters both big and small – is my benchmark. For instance, hanging up a student’s coat when one arrived at his office and helping them put it back on as they left; inviting students to lunch; taking an interest in hardships a student is experiencing in their personal life; helping them find work upon graduation.
Looking for a position in academia is a taxing and at times even crushing experience. The path to success normally burdens a candidate’s professors and institutions, calling for their active support. Helping candidates also draws on one’s social capital and puts one’s reputation on the line. It can even make one beholden to others. Still, Robert wrote vigorously on my behalf and supported me in any way that he could. He was, as he used to put it “pulling out all the stops,” always responsive, pro-active, invested, and concerned. Only once it was all over and done with, did I learn that during that entire period Robert had been bedridden. He had slipped on an icy pavement and suffered serious injury, and was toiling on my behalf while convalescing from an operation. Robert purposely kept his condition from me, so as to foil any reluctance to burden him.
Robert was quintessentially American. Not only did his interests gravitate towards American history, literature, law, politics, and current affairs, he also deeply cared about America itself. Explaining a surge in his scholarly productivity over the past handful of years, he wrote to me that “there are things I want to say to my poor benighted country.” Finally, Robert exemplified a type of gentlemanliness I find uniquely American, combining an air of aristocracy without the whiff of condescension.
Robert A. Ferguson, beloved by his students, a true man of letters, and the kindest person one could ever hope to know, died recently at the age of 75. I will miss him dearly.
Ori J Herstein