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A Scholar & Gentleman

July 01, 2015

From the Penn Law Journal Spring 2015 issue.

A few years out of law school, Ted Ruger returned to his hometown of St. Louis to become an associate professor at Washington University School of Law. A young legal scholar with an avid interest in history, Ruger was researching the constitutional history of the early United States when he came across a fascinating footnote about a serious challenge to judicial review in Kentucky less than 50 years after the ink had dried on the Constitution.

Ruger began to explore the long-running dispute over the state Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a popular debtor relief statute. The action led the legislature to disband and replace the Court. Drawn to the emerging field of popular constitutionalism, Ruger pored over hundreds of pages of newspaper accounts from that era and recognized parallels, as well as significant differences, to modern debates about judicial activism.

Armed with that research, he wrote an account every bit as compelling as this relatively obscure chapter in constitutional history, and saw his paper published in the Harvard Law Review, which he had once led as president.

The paper would become much more than a footnote in his career, when the piece came to the attention of the Penn Law appointments committee. “This was one of the most exciting pieces we had ever read,” recalled Sally Gordon, the Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History who was a member of that committee. “It really was a breakthrough article.”

Nonetheless, it would have to vault the high bar for constitutional law scholarship at Penn Law. It did and Ruger joined the faculty in 2004.

In the decade since, Ruger has been active in the affairs of the Law School, chairing the appointments committee that was so instrumental in his career, co-authoring the diversity plan, and assisting the former dean, Mike Fitts, as deputy dean. On February 17, he was rewarded for his contributions and understanding of the mission of the law school with appointment as the next dean, effective July 1.

Faculty, staff, and alumni greeted the announcement with enthusiasm. “With his insight, strategic acumen, vitality and people skills, as well as his long experience at the institution, Ted Ruger is the obvious choice to lead the Law School into the next decade,” said Perry Golkin W’74, WG’74, L’78, chairman of the Penn Law Board of Overseers. “In other words, Ted is perfectly positioned to maintain our momentum as we navigate a changing landscape.”

“Ted has a big heart,” said Bill Bratton, the Nicholas F. Gallichio Professor of Law who has served alongside Ruger as deputy dean. “Ted cares a lot about people at the Law School… I think he’s a natural leader. Ted will do what has to be done.”

The day of the announcement, students flooded the Haaga Lounge to congratulate Ruger, a popular and accessible professor who teaches Health Law, Legislation, and a seminar on health reform. (Ruger plans to continue to teach the seminar next year.)

Among the attendees was Frank Desimone, president of the Council of Student Representatives. “He’s young. He’s not that far removed from having gone through the same experience (as us). I think there’s a sense that he really relates to us and also (understands) a lot of the ways the profession has been evolving in recent years.”

Ruger, 46, takes over the law school at a time of gleaming promise as well as daunting challenge. Penn Law has prospered in recent years, becoming one of the nation’s elite law schools. The institution continues to attract high caliber students and to recruit rising young scholars to the faculty. In collaboration with other top-notch professional schools at Penn, the Law School has created an interdisciplinary program that is broad in scope and rife with opportunities for students on the threshold of new and exciting careers. At the same time, Ruger inherits a number of internal and external challenges.

Key members of the senior staff, including longtime dean of students Gary Clinton, are moving into retirement, so he will have to build a new team. In addition, he will have to inoculate Penn Law from the declines in enrollment that have plagued other law schools (although that is beginning to improve), and anticipate and react to the technological and other changes affecting the legal profession.

In an interview, Ruger said among his priorities will be to increase faculty and student engagement with policymakers and to build on the Law School’s existing efforts to make legal training more relevant to the modern world. “We see a lot of areas where the law frankly is out of date,” said Ruger, explaining that current legal doctrine is inadequate to address the challenges arising from dramatic economic, technological, and geopolitical change.

For example, he said, lawyers of the future will need to resolve the tensions between new technologies and data sharing practices and privacy concerns. Ruger added that lawyers must develop new legal regimes to govern the delivery of health care in an age where the challenge is to maintain quality of care yet reduce costs.

Law schools must also prepare, he said, to respond to the changes afoot in the legal profession, where mechanization is leading some law firms to hire fewer associates and rely instead on the use of algorithmic computer programs for document review  —  putting pressure on career planning offices to direct students to new opportunities in public service and other areas of the private sector.

In such a state of flux there has been a small but concerted movement to reduce law school to two years — an approach that Ruger views as inappropriate for Penn Law. Still, Ruger emphasized that Penn Law has an obligation to make sure that all three years of law school contain substantive value. “We are very committed to the three-year model, but we’re equally committed to making sure that each year builds on the one before it, and that the third year adds skills that students may not have gotten in the first two years.”

Ruger said the capstone year will continue to include experiential classes in a range of substantive areas, such as contract and real estate agreement drafting, coupled with a commitment to clinical education and enhanced support for off-campus externships supervised by faculty.

The world of academia beckoned to Ruger at an early age. He grew up on the campus of Washington University at St. Louis, where his father, Peter Ruger, served for 18 years as general counsel. His son, Ted, often studied there while in high school and was known to kick a soccer ball around the plush greens.

Despite those ties, the younger Ruger decided to leave home and study at Williams College. The former captain of his high school soccer team, Ruger played JV soccer and baseball in college and won the school’s award for the best senior thesis in the field of U.S. history. Further distinction awaited him at Harvard Law School. In that hothouse environment, Ruger earned a reputation as a brilliant, unassuming and likeable student. He won the Sears Prize, which is awarded to the two students with the best GPA in the first year, and was later elected, in 1994, president of the Harvard Law Review, the same position that Barack Obama held several years earlier.

“Ted was universally admired and liked,” said Penn Law professor Cathie Struve, who served on the Harvard Law Review with him and now has an office next door. She said everyone regarded Ruger as “super nice and very, very smart.”

Opportunities abounded for Ruger after law school. He held associate positions at major law firms in Boston and Washington, D.C., and then, as a law clerk, received an education that went well beyond his law school studies.

In successive years, Ruger clerked for Judge Michael Boudin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who said of him: “Ted Ruger was a fine law clerk, with a competence and personality that endeared him to all who worked with him in chambers. He will be a fine dean at your great law school.”

Chap Petersen, a member of the Virginia State Senate who roomed and played soccer with Ruger at Williams, said he was in awe of his classmate when he visited him to play basketball at what he called the highest court in the land. “He’s one of the few people I’ve met who hasn’t let (success) go to his head or make him arrogant.”

In 2001, Ruger returned home to start his academic career as an associate professor at his father’s alma mater, Washington University School of Law. In that he was joined by his wife, Jennifer Prah Ruger.

Jennifer Prah Ruger is an internationally renowned scholar with degrees from the University of California-Berkeley, Oxford University, Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Yale University, and Harvard, where she earned a PhD in Health Policy and studied with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Since 2013, she has been on the Penn faculty as associate professor in the department of medical ethics and health policy in the Perelman School of Medicine.

A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, she has traveled the world to gather evidence on and reduce the prevalence of health inequities visited upon women and children in the most impoverished populations. Her work has been awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship, and been cited by the United Nations, World Bank, World Health Organization, and the U.S. government.

Like her husband, Dr. Ruger has combined athletics and scholarship in her life. As a youth, she was a Top Ten tennis player nationally, and later served as team captain at the University of California-Berkeley, and internationally as a member of the U.S. Junior Fed Cup and Oxford Blues teams.

The Rugers met in 1989 when both were competing for Rhodes Scholarships in their hometown of St. Louis. Neither won: “Our prize was meeting each other,” Dr. Ruger said.

They were married before Ted started law school. Today they have three children: Helen, 15; Henry, 13; and Maggie, 6 — all of whom are reportedly either better, or will soon be better, tennis players than their father.

Ted recognizes the key role Jennifer has played in his career. “I wouldn’t be where I am without our long shared history together,” he said. “From my early interest in health care issues to my decision to pursue a career in legal academia, Jennifer has been a tremendously important partner along this journey.”

Their shared interest in health care, albeit from different perspectives, has led to opportunities for collaboration. One such collaboration took place when the Rugers and George Annas of Boston University published an analysis of the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision in the New England Journal of Medicine last August. In the article, titled “Money, sex and religion — the Supreme Court’s ACA sequel,” Dr. Ruger argued that the ruling to exempt some private employers on religious grounds from covering contraception carries damaging implications for women’s access to health care, while her husband considered the empirical side of Supreme Court decision-making.

In his evaluation of the Hobby Lobby decision and in his other work on the Supreme Court, Ted Ruger is engaged in a relatively new and important branch of scholarship called empirical legal studies. This burgeoning field brings together experts from different disciplines who are interested in evidenced-based methodologies in areas such as legislation, health care, and administrative law. Ruger, who has worked with political scientists to evaluate thousands of court opinions, has become a key figure in the movement, organizing a conference of the Society of Empirical Legal Studies at Penn Law in 2013 with colleagues David Abrams and Tess Wilkinson-Ryan.

The work brought him into close contact with Wilkinson-Ryan, a younger scholar who studies the psychology of legal decision-making. Wilkinson-Ryan described Ruger as “accessible and generous.” With Ruger as dean, she said, “I expect it to be a really exciting and productive time for junior faculty. We will have a dean who can be a mentor and a real role model … He’s really excited about new research and new directions.”
One of Ruger’s tasks will be to recruit promising faculty such as Wilkinson-Ryan. He already has a track record of doing so. When he served as chair of the appointments committee in 2008–09, he recommended Shyam Balganesh and Sophia Lee. Both Balganesh and Lee received tenure at Penn Law last year.

Ruger counts the quality of the faculty as one of Penn Law’s greatest strengths. “We are tremendously fortunate to have a faculty comprised of people who are national and international leaders in their fields of research as well as fantastic classroom teachers,” he said. “I am continually impressed by the scholarship that my colleagues produce as well as their willingness to engage with each other’s work.”

Balganesh, a scholar in the area of intellectual property and innovation policy, said his first encounter with Penn was Ruger, who shepherded him through the appointments process with candor and encouragement. “I trust him regardless of what decision he makes, even if I disagree… I will never question that he has the institution’s best interests (in mind).”

Among those interests is a general acknowledgement of the need to increase diversity at the Law School. Ruger’s commitment to diversity is well-documented. He co-authored the Law School’s diversity plan and wrote an amicus brief as counsel for the National Association of Basketball Coaches, in a 2013 case before the Supreme Court in which he argued for broad university discretion to advance diversity along numerous dimensions.

Ruger said law and other areas of thought are subject to substantive disagreement involving race, gender, and political ideology. A great law school, he said, should reflect the diversity of opinion and background that exists in the outside world.

“I expect our students to be leaders on the most important issues we face in society,” Ruger said. “We need to expose them to multiple viewpoints inside the building so they can participate and shape debates on those issues once they leave Penn Law.”

There is little diversity of opinion when it comes to Ted Ruger, who has been hailed by everyone, past and present. On the day of his appointment as dean, Prawfs Blawg, a cheeky enterprise on law and life run by nine law professors around the country, congratulated Ruger with the headline “Hail to the Chief.” On the site was a photo of Ruger sitting with future Penn Law professor Cathie Struve and other members of his team at the Harvard Law Review. Ruger is seen holding a baton. That baton has now been passed to him at Penn Law.