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Miller Still an Inquisitive Student of Law at Heart

By Kenneth Stratton '19 SUNDAY, MAY 26, 2019 - 12:00 PM WNE100

“‘This law school thing sucks, I can’t wait to be a lawyer,’” he remembers thinking. Eventually he had that opportunity, traveling the country as a legal services lawyer. But in part because law school was not an enjoyable experience for him, he wanted to make sure no future law students would ever have to feel the same way.

Bruce Miller has been teaching the law at Western New England for the last 40 years. In 2020, he’ll enter into retirement and step away from the lecture hall. But for anyone who knows Miller, they know that won’t be the last they hear of him. After all, for someone who has been politically engaged since he was 12, stepping out of the batter’s box would be easier said than done.

“Young people’s eyes were being opened at that time,” Miller said, thinking back to the 1960’s. As a young man, he was concerned with individual liberty, identifying as a Goldwater Republican. But his eyes opened too, after spending about six months studying in Germany during college. To be able to see American issues – such as Malcolm X and Civil Rights, Lyndon Johnson and the War in Vietnam – from an outsider’s perspective was interesting.

What was going on in the world around him at the time was only one of the reasons he decided to take on law school, after graduating from Stanford University in 1966. He was a student of history, and learned he also loved philosophy and literature.

“Law seemed to me to be a discipline that involved all three,” Miller said, so law was the natural choice. While that was his motivation for law school, Miller recalled that some young men were flocking to graduate schools to extend their student deferment from participating in the draft. He recalls having to take a physical himself, where he was labeled 1Y, ineligible to serve on account of migraines… and his education.

“‘You’re an educated person, you shouldn’t have to serve,’” he recalled the physician telling him. This privilege brought with it a sense of guilt, but regardless, Miller had no intention of going to Vietnam. “If I were drafted, I would refuse induction,” he said, explaining his mind set at the time. Miller was on his way to Harvard Law, but would soon realize, law school was not going to be an enjoyable experience.

“I loved the assignments, I just hated the classes,” Miller explained. One experience he did enjoy, however, was serving as a teacher’s assistant for a civil procedure class in his third year. He’d reflect on these experiences later, when thinking about how to build a student-oriented community at Western New England.

Miller would zoom through law school and land his first job with the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare as a legal services lawyer. In the late ‘60’s, Miller was working on issues such as school desegregation and the national welfare rights movement. Starting work in 1969, just after Richard Nixon’s inauguration as President, Miller remembers expecting an upheaval in the department, only to be reassured that the continuity and stability of their work would remain.

“‘People stand for the rule of law here,’” Miller remembers his boss telling him. Some of his colleagues had been working in that department since the Roosevelt administration, and they explained their work would continue regardless of who was President.

“We do have a deep state, and thank God for it,” Miller said with a chuckle. “Just by doing our jobs, we were able to stop Nixon from doing some of what he wanted to do,” he said. He recalled an off-the-cuff policy proposal from Nixon himself, that suggested stripping anti-Vietnam students of their federal financial aid. “We just wouldn’t let him do it! We stopped it through just regular channels,” the professor explained. With all this exciting work, the collaboration with great colleagues, and opportunity for political organizing on their own time, Miller enjoyed this first job.

Between October of 1971 and August 1972, Miller took time off for what he called the “classic VW bus odyssey” across Europe as he paid off his student loans. Still wanting to be a legal services lawyer when he returned to the states, Miller accepted a job in L.A. at the National Senior Citizens Law Center, working with the elderly poor. His government contacts came in handy on this second job, where Miller spent much of his time working on Social Security, supplemental security income and private pension law.

“There was nobody senior to me, so any litigation I brought was responsible to me,” Miller recalled. This meant he was traveling the country, working in the federal courts on behalf of the elderly poor, and with no litigation experience to that point, that meant quick professional growth for Miller. It also confirmed what he already knew: “[the law] can be useful for social change.”

Outside of the impact litigation he worked on while at the National Senior Citizens Law Center, he also focused on supporting local legal aid lawyers, which “wetted my appetite for teaching,” something that had already been present since that TA opportunity at Harvard. Miller began to seriously consider teaching as the next phase of his career.

Miller calls it “tremendous luck and privilege” to end up where he did in 1980, at Western New England. Now a professor of law, life was changing for Miller. By now a father, he would also become a husband, marrying his wife Jane in 1981.

“And so, we came… had no idea how long it would be… but it’s been long!” he exclaimed. Coming up on four decades, it has been a long time, during which, Miller was able to help shape the student-oriented community he always longed for.

Miller and five of his colleagues had all attended Harvard Law, and not a single one of them enjoyed the experience. “I felt taught down to,” Miller recalls of his own experience. So, with gripes like this in mind, a brain trust was formed, and the colleagues put their heads together on how to make Western New England better. In the end, as Miller says, “a community was built.”

The colleagues identified what was wrong with their law school experience, and how they would strive to be different: 1) discussion was too narrow… so they’d think bigger in class; 2) the use of authority from the front of the lecture hall was overbearing… so they’d treat their students like future colleagues, not subordinates; 3) teaching strictly doctrine was not helpful… instead they’d focus on skills and argument. This emphasis is still felt at the school today, and making changes like this was only possible because of Dean Howard Kalodner’s trust in the faculty.

“I felt like this guy was going to be okay as a boss,” Miller said, going a step further to call Kalodner an inspirational leader. He recalled that Kalodner was a fan of the Harvard-like approach to teaching the law, but it spoke a lot to his leadership style, that he allowed Miller and others to chart their own course. “He never let disagreements get personal,” Miller said of Kalodner. The dean’s hands-off approach was helpful for allowing Miller to grow as an educator. “I felt completely accountable to me, and that was right for me,” Miller said.

In the years that he’s been with the School of Law, Miller has certainly remained active in using the law for social change, or at the very least, imparting his wisdom from experience on colleagues and students. He’s been a trustee of the Rosenberg Fund for Children since 1990. He is president of No More Guantanamos, and has supported legislation requiring health care providers to not participate, directly or indirectly, in the abusive treatment or interrogation of prisoners. In recent years, he’s held several talks at the law school, including those on freedom of speech, President Trump’s immigration and security related travel restrictions, and impeachment.

“He’s threatened everything I care about,” Miller said of the 45th President. Miller explained that he’s no longer a Republican, but doesn’t consider himself a liberal either. “I have the heart of an anarchist to a degree,” he said, in the vein of Noam Chomsky, an MIT professor renowned for his work in philosophy, linguistics and cognitive science. “All forms of power,” Miller said, “corporate and government, must be accountable, in a democratic way to the people.”

But for all the impact work he’s done, Miller’s also always found a way to keep things light, as he did when he coached the women’s basketball team for the annual School of Law basketball tournament, or when he talks baseball with a new crop of students every spring.

“I feel I should understand the rule of law better than I do,” Miller said. He laughed, knocking his own profession; one which is so important, but sometimes can’t even define its own terms. And after forty years, he’s still asking questions, in a way, still an inquisitive student of law at heart.