Law School graduates 63

Retired UND Law Dean and University Provost Paul LeBel tells grads they are uniquely qualified to help heal a ‘polarized’ nation

Paul LeBel

Paul LeBel, UND Law Dean Emeritus and former UND Provost and Law Professor gave the speech at the School of Law Commencement Ceremony. Photo by Jackie Lorentz photo.

They began their studies as “nomads.”

They ended them seated together in the Chester Fritz Auditorium as UND’s School of Law held its commencement ceremony Saturday, May 6.

These wandering students — now the class of 2017 — had the distinction of starting their legal studies in a school without a home. The Law Building was vacated for expansion and total renovation during the 2014-15 academic year. That meant taking classes wherever space was available: in Gamble, Leonard, Abbott, Merrifield, Witmer and Gillette Halls, in the Education Building, and, as Law Dean Kathryn Rand added ironically, “the beloved Swanson [Hall] basement.”

She introduced Paul LeBel as not only the former dean of the school and UND’s former provost and vice president for academic affairs, but as a caring faculty member who helped these new students negotiate a particularly disorderly year.

Meaning of ‘facts’

LeBel, who retired from UND last year, reflected on the experience of attending commencements over his four decades in the academic world.

“Some of you know that my wife and I skipped my law school graduation ceremony 40 years ago, and went to the opening of the first ‘Star Wars’ movie,” he told the candidates. “So the advice I remember from my law school graduation day is, ‘Use the Force, Luke.’”

Still, the commencement address remains a traditional occasion for observations and advice, and LeBel had several to share. These new lawyers, he said, are beginning their careers in a time of remarkable polarization in the nation and disputes over the meaning of “facts.”

“I think that one of the things that is most alarming to me today is how pervasive the bitterness about the contest between fact and untruth has become among ordinary folk,” LeBel said. He cited a narrowing toward an egocentric attitude, “a universe where something is true because I want it to be true, and because it’s more convenient to me … than to deal honestly with the reality of how things are.” The result has been chasms in American society.

“Each of you,” LeBel told the graduates, “is uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role in rebuilding the public infrastructure, because ours is, at heart, a healing profession, and we are people in desperate need of healing the lacerations in the social fabric.”

“I’ve got one last assignment for you,” he said. “It’s a take-home assignment, and you’ve got 40 years to work on it. It’s pass-fail. And it’s graded while you’re looking in the bathroom mirror … Your assignment is to work on the civic infrastructure, the social and moral fabric that makes us a people.”

 Ifrh Esse

UND School of Law graduate Ifrh Esse holds flowers she received following the commencement ceremony held on Saturday, May 6. Photo by Jackie Lorentz .

 Humility and courage

As new lawyers, he said, they will need two resources. The first is the humility to recognize their own limitations and draw on the strengths of others. The second is the courage to persevere when the stakes get higher and the opposition more determined.

“Remember that you are not alone,” Lebel said. “Nothing that you are going to experience is unique to you. No mistakes you are going to make haven’t been made by someone else before.”

The law profession sees its share of “broken heroes,” he counseled, warning the graduates about pursuing “a false idol of perfection. It’s the most unhealthy expectation of ourselves.”

The calling of law is one of both great power and great responsibility, LeBel said.

“In every encounter that you have with another person, people will look to you, and they will have expectations of you,” he said. “You have the opportunity to be an influence for good in ways that no other person has. At times, that may seem like a great burden. In reality, it’s a wonderful gift. Use that gift. Nurture it. Revel in it. Pass it on.”

Class and speaker

Sixty-three were candidates for the degree of Juris Doctor at Saturday’s ceremony. Jonathan Yunker of Grand Forks was also a candidate for the Master of Business Administration degree.

Paul LeBel came to UND as dean of the School of Law in 2004. He served as UND’s provost and vice president for academic affairs from 2009 to 2013, when he returned to full-time teaching in the School of Law until his retirement in 2016. He began his teaching career at the University of Illinois. Before coming to UND, he taught at the University of Alabama and the College of William and Mary, and at the Florida State University College of Law, where he was dean. LeBel and his wife, Lucinda, now live near family in Williamsburg, Va.

–Story by Richard Larson, UND Today staff writer