Q&A: Visiting Associate Professor William Tobin

Author: Kevin Fye

William Tobin

Bill Tobin is a visiting professor at the Keough School of Global Affairs, working with the Klau Institute for Civil and Human Rights. His teaching on civil rights and refugee determination is informed by an interdisciplinary approach to contemporary challenges. Prior to coming to Notre Dame, Tobin taught history at the National University of Ireland, where he was a tenured lecturer, and then taught sociology and developed a range of undergraduate programs at Duke University. He received a PhD in American History from Stanford University and a JD from the University of North Carolina Law School and is a member of the North Carolina state Bar.


Your teaching is both practical and deeply interdisciplinary. How did your early formation as a scholar help you embrace that approach?

I was born in Ireland, and was one of hundreds of children that were “exported” from Ireland in the late 1950s, and early 1960s. I was adopted in the US when I was very young and my adoptive parents still live in the Philadelphia area, where I grew up.

I went to college not to get a job or read great books, but to play football at Moravian College, which is in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. There a great professor took an interest me and convinced me of what might be possible of the field for a wide receiver who was short, but slow. After graduation I went to Boston College, where I was a master’s student in history, then taught in the Baltimore City Public Schools for a couple years. That was just after the schools were desegregating to the degree that you could desegregate in Baltimore City.

While teaching in Baltimore City I realized I wanted to try to combine a practical engagement with schools with a more scholarly study of education, so I went to Stanford where I began a program in the History of American Education and eventually got a PhD in US history, I was also interested in social science and the study of organizations—in which Stanford in the late 1980s was the place to be—and I was lucky enough to get a National Institute of Mental Health pre doctoral fellowship. NIMH was interested in what organizations delivered mental health services most effectively, and I was interested in mental health from an historical perspective as well as organizations so it was a good fit. Because the fellowship was administered through the Sociology Department at Stanford and there were classes and seminars associated with the fellowship, I was really trained as both a social scientist and historian at Stanford.

Looking for an adventure after finishing my PhD, I took a job in Ireland at the National University of Ireland as an American History lecturer. There I built an American History concentration, really an American Culture program. After about five years in Ireland, my partner and I got jobs at Duke. Because of the NIMH fellowship and training in social science I got a faculty position in the Sociology Department at Duke, there I taught and ran the honors program in the sociology with Suzanne Shanahan.


When did you decide to take up the study of law?

There had always been a kind of tension between applied work and scholarly work in my professional life. I think I got tired of sitting in my office writing articles that were interesting, but—not I thought—important in the world outside the university. And at that point, I decided to go to law school. I kept my teaching job at Duke and went full time to University of North Carolina Law School.

My second year I met Julius Chambers, one of the lawyers who shapped the direction of desegregation in the US at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Over the years he successfully argued a number of cases before the Supreme Court. The most notable of these cases was the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. Here, for the first time Court allowed the use of involuntary district-wide busing as a necessary remedy to eliminate segregation in the sprawling city-county school district. So I started working under Chambers at the Civil Rights Center at the UNC School of Law and after passing the bar worked at the Center as consulting attorney, while still at Duke. As a lawyer at the Center and later, I focused primarily on equity issues in public schools. I have worked with big city public school superintendents, community colleges, and universities as well as a range of communities.

The best faculty members and students were able to go into the apartment of a refugee family and just shut up and listen and find out, what's going on.

Experiential learning is a keystone of your teaching. How does that aspect of the academic experience enrich education in your view?

What we were trying to do at Duke was to create undergraduate programs that allowed students to see the intersection of civil rights law, public education and refugee resettlement. Suzanne Shanahan and I ran a community facing center, The Citizenship Lab at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke for about 8 or 9 years. We created relationships with hundreds of refugee families, their children and Duke undergrads and graduate students. We decidedly did not want to create a service learning, big brother or mentoring program. Instead we were trying to create friendships—we asked all the young people in the lab: can you rent space in your head for someone who is similar in age, but wildly different in background? Occasionally, there were opportunities to draw on what these relationships taught us all to address structural problems that refugees encountered in Durham and beyond. We used some of the titles of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because they were a good fit for the work of a community facing lab with a focus on the challenges connected with--what the act called—discrimination based on national origin. Moreover, the titles enabled non-lawyers to file complaints and participate in the process by which these complaints were adjudicated—a process that the authors of the act hoped would lead to mediated solutions—not court orders-- which are often the most durable responses to community discrimination.

As I said, this kind of legal work was emerged out of the relationships in the lab and the doing was a privilege, a gift. We all learned that before we could do challenging legal work (or more broadly, apply the research or interpretive methods we were learning in the classroom) the families, young people, community organizations had to beleive “got them” and understood them. Nobody freely chooses to be helped by someone they don’t know.

The best faculty members and students were able to go into the apartment of a refugee family and just shut up and listen and find out, what's going on. “It's really hot in here; the air conditioning must not be working….What can we all do about that… This is basic respect and humility and it, if done respectfully, enable all the student and faculty member to be helpful community ethnographers.


You teach one of the foundational courses for the minor in civil and human rights, “Civil Rights in History and Law.” What do you hope to offer students in that course?

The class is really an invitation. When you're teaching adults, like college students, your not so much telling or stating anyting, your just offering things. Students have to decide whether they want to do it or not.

And so the invitation here is that the US, has a living breathing civil rights tradition. It began in the middle of the Civil War when slaves began walking to the Union lines and in a non-linear messy, even violent process continues down to the present. The tradition is made up of the law--court opinions, legislation and administrative law-- as well as social movements—from freedom summer to the great migration. What the course is trying to do is to give students a sense of what that tradition is and then to provide some opportunities to engage with the tradition.

The US Civil rights tradition has a there, there, a set of rulings, the letter of the law, demographic realities that we have to engage with. But within these truths and realities, there's room for enormous creativity. There's occasionally opportunities to do things in and with that tradition. I try to do everything I can to invite students to do just that animated by what they understand to be imperative or important For me it's less important what the students want to do with the tradition, than them realizing there is a living, breathing tradition that they can engage with if they are willing to put the time in.


How do you incorporate the experiential into your Keough School course?

South Bend Public Schools today are encountering all the challenges that urban school district across the country are dealing with—extremely troubling long term academic proficiency outcomes and a loss of hope in the community that children will actually be taught to read and compute, charters and vouchers, difficulty attracting certified teacher and so on. The corporation is still formally under a DOJ consent decree aimed at desegregating the city’s schools, dating from the 1980s. The Civil Rights tradition offers a way of not just seeing and understanding but being in the world. So students are asked to used, what might be called a civil rights method, to figure out what is going on in South Bend Public Schools. Students do background reading on city and the school corporation, attend school board meetings and try their hand at this method to understand the community they are living in and—maybe just as importantly, to see if they enjoy that kind of work and life.