“What do I need to know?”
For many colleagues and friends, the question evokes fond memories of the late Steven Shiffrin, Charles Frank Reavis Sr. Professor of Law, Emeritus. The renowned legal scholar, whose tenure at Cornell Law School began in 1987, died May 29, 2023. His life and career were celebrated with a memorial at Myron Taylor Hall on September 18, 2023.
As speaker after speaker recalled at the memorial, when Shiffrin popped his head in at your door to ask, “What do I need to know?” the question could be the overture to a friendly intellectual debate, a gracious invitation to a junior colleague to share their thoughts, or, perhaps most frequently, an inquiry into the latest gossip. Above all, it bespoke Shiffrin’s abiding, generous practice of connection.
Opening the event, Jens David Ohlin, Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law, spoke of Shiffrin as an academic “gentle giant” who deployed his startling intellectual gifts “with a tender spirit, one that recognized our equal membership in our common intellectual endeavors.”
Michael Dorf, Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law, recalled collaborating with Shiffrin— widely recognized for his contributions to the field of constitutional law, especially the First Amendment—on cases in defense of anti-war protestors and against anti- LBGTQ discrimination. “Steve was a great dissenter,” he noted, introducing a theme that would run throughout the event’s speeches. “He valued dissenters. He valued dissent.”
Another theme was Shiffrin’s down-to-earth kindness and collegiality. Greg Alexander, A. Robert Noll Professor of Law, Emeritus, observed, “Some people express their compassion by talking. Steve expressed his by listening.” Trevor Morrison, professor and dean emeritus at NYU School of Law, remembered Shiffrin as “an ideally warm and supportive mentor and friend.” Jonathan Varat, professor and dean emeritus at UCLA School of Law, spoke of conversations with him as “the joy of academic interaction at its best.”
Shiffrin’s friends Tom Mank and Sera Smolen contributed to the memorial musically, performing Mank’s “Bethlehem Steel Night 1959,” a song Shiffrin loved.
Sheri Lynn Johnson, James and Mark Flanagan Professor of Law, recalled that, in addition to asking “What should I know?” Shiffrin also frequently inquired, “What trouble have you been causing?” hoping, Johnson suspected, to get in on the action. He loved debate—not just for its own sake, but also as a means to defend the disenfranchised. “All his life,” she said, “he was a passionate advocate for the vulnerable.”
“I think my entire generation of First Amendment scholars grew up under the wise influence of his writing and his engagement, and his absence is really palpable to us,” said Nelson Tebbe, Jane M.G. Foster Professor of Law. “We’ve lost one of the true greats.”
Aziz Rana, professor and provost’s distinguished fellow at Boston College of Law, called Shiffrin “an example of someone who was always developing in intellectual and political motion.” Chantal Thomas, vice dean and Radice Family Professor of Law, noted, “As we proceed in this era where many of us, more and more, feel the encroachment of theocracy and authoritarianism, Steve’s ecumenism, his critical outlook, his radical compassion, and his unwavering commitment to justice should inspire us.”
Closing the event, Shiffrin’s son Jacob, a professor at Relay Graduate School of Education, recounted a lunch spent brainstorming ridiculous slogans for Shiffrin’s school board campaign, including “Steve Shiffrin: A Vote for Big Tobacco.” The discussion was full of humor, but Shiffrin’s interest in creating more opportunities for children in the school district was heartfelt.
“He was doing good in the world but was often quite silly about it,” said Jacob, describing his father as someone who “juggled intellectual curiosity with a deep and unending love for everyone around him.”