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Get to Know: Jonathan Carlson


At the UI Since: 1983

Alma Mater:

BA, McGill University, 1976

JD, University of Chicago, 1979

Where is your hometown? Fargo, North Dakota

What did you do before joining Iowa Law? I practiced antitrust and commercial litigation at Patton, Boggs in Washington, D.C.

Describe your role at the university. I’m a faculty member.  My primary responsibilities are teaching and research. But, like many faculty, I also have some administrative responsibilities. In the law school, I serve on the curriculum committee, which evaluates new courses, helps ensure that we are compliant with ABA Standards (which change frequently) and makes recommendations to the faculty about proposals to improve our program of legal education. I also serve on the University Faculty Judicial Commission, which provides a process for adjudicating disputes about tenure, promotion and other matters.

What do you enjoy most about working at Iowa Law? The fact that I learn something new nearly every day!  I have been lucky in my career – my deans have allowed me to teach new courses from time to time and haven’t required me to specialize in any particular area.  I’ve been allowed to be a generalist and to learn new subjects fairly regularly. I love that intellectual challenge.

What does your scholarship entail?  My scholarship focuses on international environmental law and, especially, climate change.  There are some environmental problems that individual nations can solve on their own, but there are many that require cooperative international action for their resolution.  Climate change is probably the most serious long-term threat facing our children and grandchildren, and we will not be able to limit its severity and impact without international cooperation. My scholarship seeks to identify legal principles and cooperative techniques that can help nations successfully cooperate in this area.

How did you decide to join the legal profession? I was deeply involved in speech and debate activities in high school. I found I enjoyed analyzing issues and constructing arguments. I had the sense that lawyers did something similar to that. But I didn’t know any lawyers, and I had no experience with the legal system, so I wasn’t thinking of law school as an option when I first began college.

In college, I studied philosophy.  When I was a senior, I realized that I had to figure out the next step. Some of my classmates were applying to law school and they encouraged me to think about it. So I took the LSAT in the fall of my senior year, applied to a few law schools the following spring, and started law school the next fall.

In other words, I ended up in the legal profession the way a lot of people end up there:  sort of, but not quite, by accident.  It wasn’t a life goal, but when it came time to make a career choice, it seemed like a logical one given my interests and talents.

What is most fulfilling about your work? Learning for myself and helping others learn.  Every day that I learn something new is a good day. Every day that one of my students learns something new is a great day.

What do you enjoy most working in higher education? Ironically, what I enjoy most is the teamwork.  It is ironic because much of what faculty do is done in isolation from one another. For most of us, our teaching is a solitary endeavor.  Similarly, few law faculty collaborate in their research.  Nonetheless, there are many opportunities to work in teams and collaborate with others in higher education.  Most of this work involves working on committees that are responsible for such tasks as hiring, curriculum evaluation, program reviews, or policy development. A lot of people find such work tedious, and I often do as well. But if the right people are assigned to a task, and if the task is meaningful, it can be very rewarding to work on a team. There are great people everywhere in this university, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with many of them.  There is nothing I like more in my job than working with smart, thoughtful people who share my dedication to making the University as good as it can be.

What’s a risk you’ve taken and did it pay off? In the spring of my sophomore year of college, I felt I was paying too much money for not enough education, and I decided to transfer to a different school. I went to the college library, found the shelves where they kept catalogs from other colleges, and searched for possible transfer destinations. I ran across a catalog for McGill University in Montreal, Canada.  It sounded intriguing, so I applied in April and was admitted in August.  I didn’t know anyone at McGill and I’d only been in Montreal once, for a day, on a family camping vacation many years before. But I packed my duffel bag, got myself to Montreal, registered for classes, and started looking for a place to live.

Was it a risk?  Yes, in the sense that I went there having never seen the school before, having no idea where I would live, knowing no one, and with an extremely limited budget. Plus, the dominant language in Montreal is French, which I don’t speak.  So it felt like a risk to me .  Did the risk pay off?  Absolutely. I spent two of the best years of my life in Montreal, and I received a terrific education (a huge improvement on my prior college) at 15% of the price I’d been paying!

What’s your favorite book, or what are you reading right now and why do you enjoy it? I just started reading Reconstruction:  America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner. A few recent appointees to the federal bench have said things in their hearings that suggest that they might, as judges, challenge the equal protection and 14th Amendment analysis that underlies the decision in Brown v. Board of Education and its direct and indirect progeny.  My guess is that these judges plan to try to develop some sort of “originalist” analysis of the 14th Amendment. What that will look like is anybody’s guess, but I decided it would be worthwhile to learn something more about the period during which the 14th Amendment was adopted.

Eric Foner is one of the leading historians of this period, and he has a book coming out in September specifically about the Reconstruction Amendments and their impact.  I thought I’d read some of his earlier work while waiting for his new book to come out.  His book on Reconstruction, originally written in the 1980s and updated in 2014, is a modern classic on the topic. So far, I’m enjoying it immensely. The history, of course, is fascinating.  In addition, Foner writes exceedingly well, making the book an effortless and enjoyable read.

Name a few of your favorite things. Reading, golf, Sudoku, my granddaughter (and the rest of my family), The New York Times, The Economist, Shelly Kurtz, piano playing, singing, British TV mysteries, and northwestern Minnesota lake country.