At 150 years old, Ole Miss Law School survive, prospers

By Jennifer Farish

Daily Journal Oxford Bureau

OXFORD – From seven students and one professor to a burgeoning center of law research and study, the University of Mississippi School of Law has seen both decline and prosperity.

“The law school has certainly changed a great deal since its beginning in 1854,” said Sam Davis, dean of the school. “It is larger in terms of students and faculty. Its influence has expanded much beyond the state of Mississippi.”

Today, the University Law Center includes the National Space Law Center, the National Remote Sensing and Space Law Center, the National Center for Justice and the Rule of Law, a research college and a judicial college.

Enrollment has hovered at 500 students for several years, and there are more than 30 full-time and part-time faculty members, Davis said.

As the first and only public law school in the state, the University of Mississippi Department of Law opened in 1854 after the university successfully petitioned the school for a “professorship of governmental science and law,” said retired professor Michael Landon, who is writing a book on the law school's history.

The university hired William Forbes Stearns as its sole law professor. A native of Vermont, Stearns had moved to Pontotoc by the age of 19 and later established a successful law practice in Holly Springs.

A self-taught lawyer, Stearns delivered the keynote speech when the cornerstone of the university's hallmark building, the Lyceum, was laid in 1846, eight years before the law school's creation.

Yale connections

Stearns is also the beginning of an interesting connection between the Ole Miss and Yale law schools, Landon said.

In 1857, Stearns accompanied the Ole Miss chancellor to Yale for an academic ceremony.

“The chancellor persuaded the Yale faculty to give Professor Stearns an honorary doctor of law degree, and ever since the Yale connection has been a continuing theme,” Landon said.

Over the years, many faculty members at the Law Center have held degrees from Yale, including Meyer McDougal, a leading Yale professor who helped Ole Miss establish the National Remote Sensing and Space Law Center.

In the mid-1960s, then-Dean Joshua Morris hired four or five new Yale law school graduates to teach radical ideas about race relations.

The “Yalies” caused such a stir that Dean Morris left to take a job at Florida State University, Landon said.

Many homes

Although three buildings are commonly known as having housed the law school, it's actually had seven homes, including the current location, Landon said.

The Department of Law was first housed in the Lyceum and then in a building just off the Oxford Public Square before the Civil War.

Landon said the university agreed to lease the building from its owner in 1858 to keep the owner from going bankrupt and kept that agreement until the Civil War closed the school for one of only two times in its history.

Closing in 1861, the school reopened in 1866 in a dormitory building that was in the current location of Peabody Hall.

The school was closed again 1874-77 because no one applied for admission during Reconstruction. Classes resumed in the same location until 1889 when classes were moved to the building now known as Ventress Hall, Landon said.

Ventress Hall was first named Lamar Hall for famed Mississippian and U.S. Sen. L.Q.C. Lamar, who served as chair from 1866 to 1870.

Instead of lectures, Lamar implemented a new style of teaching that relied on reported opinions, which was later developed at Harvard University.

Producing leaders

Lamar's influence is evident – each law school building from 1889 on has been named for him.

In 1911, a new law school, now known as Farley Hall, was the law school's home from 1930 until 1978 when the current Law Center was opened in a modern-style building, which seems out of place among the red-brick historical structures nearby.

Construction of the current Lamar Law Center ended sporadic movements by some politicians to move the Law School from Oxford to Jackson, Landon said.

“It wasn't until the 1970s with the construction of the new center that the idea was finally dropped,” he said.

Despite the times of decline and unrest, the Ole Miss Law School has continued to expand, producing state and national leaders in business and government.

“The law school does have regional and national significance – in terms of how it is noted not just for educating lawyers who work in private and public practice, but for preparing people for positions of leadership in government and the business world,” Davis said.

Contact Jennifer Farish at 281-1069 or jennifer.farish@djournal.com