On July 1, John Oberdiek will begin serving as acting dean of Rutgers Law–Camden.
A noted scholar in the areas of legal philosophy and tort law, Oberdiek holds a secondary appointment with the Department of Philosophy on the Rutgers–New Brunswick campus and co-directs the Rutgers Institute of Law and Philosophy.
In 2004, a practicing attorney at Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C., Oberdiek was asked to join the faculty at the School of Law–Camden. The following year, he was named a Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Fellow at Princeton University. During 2011, he served as the law school’s director of faculty research and he was named the school’s first vice dean in 2012.
How does your background in philosophy and law inform each other?
Working at the intersection of law and philosophy allows me to connect the foundational and abstract questions of philosophy to the practical world of law. One area that I write in is tort theory. While some might think that there is nothing less philosophical than tort law — if there is a stereotype about personal injury lawyers, it isn’t that they’re philosophers — in fact tort law raises a lot of deep philosophical questions. For example, inquiring about the conditions and limits of responsibility has been a staple of moral philosophy from the beginning, and tort law can’t help but face those questions. In fact, we owe Aristotle for one of the dominant theories of tort law, called corrective justice.
Did your career path always include both philosophy and law?
I wanted to be an academic from a fairly early age — my dad is a just-retired philosophy professor at Swarthmore College. I myself was a philosophy major in college, but I was also interested in law school. I couldn’t decide which path to take. A mentor in college suggested that I do a dual-degree program in law and philosophy. I had never considered doing both law and philosophy, but that’s precisely what I ended up doing. After doing graduate work in philosophy at Oxford and then NYU, I eventually joined the University of Pennsylvania’s dual-degree program and ended up getting my JD and PhD. The two fields are naturally compatible. As the best definition of philosophy I’ve heard puts it, philosophy is the ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children using methods that come naturally to lawyers.
How has this dual interest impacted your career?
My background in law and philosophy had a lot to do with why Rutgers took an interest in me, and why I was just as interested in Rutgers. The law school had just founded the Rutgers Institute in Law and Philosophy as a joint venture with the world-renowned Rutgers philosophy department in New Brunswick. I was in the right place at the right time. I’ve always considered myself very lucky to work at a place that affords me the opportunity to keep a foot in both law and philosophy and, more generally, that values the kind of scholarship that I do.
What is it like to follow in the footsteps of Dean Solomon, who will assume full-time the role of campus provost?
Ray set the standard of what a successful dean is, and no one is going to fill his shoes. The most that I can do is try to do what he did: look out for the best interests of the students, faculty, and staff, and be a team player both on the campus and within the wider university. I’ve been very fortunate to work closely with Ray over the past few years. He’s a superb mentor and I’ve learned a lot from him. And happily, he’s provost of the Camden campus, so I’ll still have easy access to his counsel.
What has surprised you most in your new position as acting dean at Rutgers Law–Camden?
One of the unexpected pleasures I have found in making the transition to acting dean has been getting to know the alumni. Our law school is fortunate to have so many enthusiastic and committed graduates willing to offer so much to the school and its students. Our graduates work in all manner of practices, and they contribute to the law school in all manner of ways. One of my main goals as acting dean will be to build on and expand the connections that our alumni have to the law school.
What excites you most about Rutgers Law–Camden’s future?
What is most exciting about becoming acting dean at this time is the prospect of merging with Newark to create Rutgers Law. Seeing the merger through is a major goal of mine and is sure to keep me very busy. But it will be worth the work, and worth the wait. A unified Rutgers School of Law will enjoy an enhanced national profile and, with Rutgers in the Big 10, it will literally be in league with the best public law schools in the country. It will boast a faculty with the broadest range of expertise and offer students the opportunity to take classes with faculty in either Camden or Newark using amazing immersive distance education technology. Another huge advantage of Rutgers Law is that students will gain access to extensive alumni networks in Philadelphia and New York, two of the nation’s five largest legal markets — a huge plus in what is still a challenging job market.
What do you value most in students?
There are really two sides to a professor’s relationship with students: the teacher/pupil relationship in the classroom, and the mentoring relationship outside of the classroom. I love both. Tort law is my favorite class to teach because every student is required to take it in their very first semester, so they come to class eager to learn, open-minded, and not yet jaded. Over the course of the semester, you get to witness a transformation. You see the students grapple with legal cases for the first time and by the end of the semester, you can take some pride in their ability to really analyze both sides of any argument -- a cardinal virtue in a lawyer.
Better still, outside of class you develop personal relationships with students, becoming invested in their goals. Easily the most satisfying part of being a law professor is mentoring students and seeing them through to their first jobs in the law.
How would you describe the Rutgers Law–Camden community?
Both the student body and the faculty are cohesive and collegial. It's one of the hallmarks of our law school. Judging by the activity on the Clark Commons, connecting the law school’s two buildings, the students enjoy a strong sense of community. The faculty are the same way. We interact with one another in ways informal and formal, intellectual and social, and really enjoy one another's company. I love coming to work.
When you’re not doing law school stuff, what are you doing?
With three kids, ages 12 through 8, I stay busy outside of the law school. My wife, Patty, and I seem like we're always shepherding them to one sporting or school event or another. When I have free time, you might find me hiking or mountain biking in the Wissahickon Valley of Philadelphia's Fairmount Park.