Higher Education and Law

Class gives students a lesson in history

WMU Cooley Law School recreates former President Ford’s discussion with cabinet staff during Watergate scandal.

October 7, 2016
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When former President Gerald R. Ford made the decision to pardon his predecessor, former President Richard Nixon, for his role in the Watergate scandal, Ford spent hours consulting with his cabinet staff.

Last month, Western Michigan University Cooley Law School professor Devin Schindler, acting as Ford, spent hours consulting with his cabinet — 12 students in the inaugural “Leadership in Times of Crisis” course, sponsored jointly by WMU Cooley Law, WMU in Kalamazoo and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. The class was the first of three in the course, which places students in the shoes of Ford’s cabinet members while simulating some of the tougher decisions Ford had to make in his presidency.

“It became very clear that leadership is a great need,” said WMU Cooley Law professor Victoria Vuletich, who helped coordinate the course. “There are plenty of politicians and very few statesmen in today’s day and age, and we wanted to address the question of, ‘How do you craft thoughtful people who can effectively deal with complex situations?’”

A “true statesman” like Ford, Vuletich added, was a natural fit.

With the addition of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and Library’s new DeVos Learning Center, museum education specialist Barbara McGregor approached WMU Cooley Law about a potential partnership to increase the museum’s educational offerings. McGregor, Vuletich and WMU professor Norman Hawker brainstormed what that collaboration could look like, eventually crafting the leadership course.

The first class saw the 12 participants — comprising of nine WMU Cooley Law students taking the course as a directive study and three general public members from Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids — sit around the museum’s replica of the White House cabinet table and advise Schindler, as Ford, on Nixon’s pardon. The assembled cabinet drew from historical background and information provided by the museum to argue for or against the pardon of the nation’s only president to resign from office.

“They didn’t have to come up with the exact answer, but it was more an exercise of thinking it through from an ethical perspective and looking at the decision from all sides,” McGregor said.

The next class, scheduled for Oct. 15, will deal with Ford’s handling of the end of the Vietnam War, specifically the Mayaguez incident in 1975. The final class Nov. 12 will focus on Ford’s decision not to provide New York City with a federal bailout when the city faced bankruptcy in 1975. Each class is taught with a different professor assuming Ford’s role.

Following the completion of all three classes, the students will write a paper for course credit. Vuletich said by taking students outside of a typical classroom setting, it allows them to see firsthand some of the real-life factors in making an ethical leadership decision.

“It’s not just theoretical,” she said. “It takes them from an arm’s-length objective of, ‘What did this person do?’ to ‘What would I do and how do I feel about this?’ So, it makes these discussions that much more personal.”

The next course has yet to be officially approved by the university, but Vuletich is confident the success of this first program will carry over into a second. The course organizers will collect feedback from the students, who already have begun suggesting different historical figures and events that could make for a compelling second act for the course.

“I think this class really helps us fulfill our mission in President Ford’s vision for the museum,” McGregor said. “It’s a great collaboration, we’re very thrilled with it and we expect great things.”

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