Jay Ponteri, English faculty, will be a guest author on Sugar Radio, hosted by Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond on February 14, 2016.
On the day he was admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court of the United States 17 years ago, earning his eligibility to argue cases before the nation's highest court, you could forgive Fred Isaacs for momentarily wondering how he got there as he chatted casually with Justice John Paul Stevens.
It's not the kind of place your average high school dropout ends up.
The journey that took Fred from unfinished business as a teenager to the pinnacle of the legal profession is part of what has made him one of the most popular professors at Marylhurst University, where he has been teaching courses such as Business Law and Power, Influence and Conflict Resolution in the business and graduate interdisciplinary studies departments for the past 12 years. He's been named Marylhurst's MBA Professor of the Year twice.
"My motto is 'no exceptions, no excuses.' I give students lots of time and plenty of reminders to complete projects – usually far more time than they need," Fred said. "In return, I have strict deadlines. Students seem to like having clear rules, knowing exactly what's expected of them and when, and they measure up to those expectations. They do excellent work because they know they get just one shot."
From the Army to law school
Fred got his shot at higher education when he returned to the United States after a stint working in military intelligence for the U.S. Army in Korea. Thanks to the G.I. Bill he went to college – and even did post-graduate work in Latin – before heading to law school. He toyed briefly with becoming a CIA foreign intelligence officer – a position for which he was heavily recruited. But his choice of profession literally turned on how many years of military education benefits he still had available.
"If I'd had four years of benefits left instead of three, I probably would have gone to medical school," Fred mused. Instead, he turned to law.
He spent more than 13 years clerking in the federal courts, positions many attorneys aspire to but aren't able to land due to a dearth of openings. Fred landed three of them over the years, positions where he researched and helped to write opinions for federal judges. He also spent nearly a decade at a boutique law firm specializing in handling legal appeals. Over the years, he's argued cases before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He loves taking on the "big" issues, the ones with Constitutional implications, and the complexity of appellate law has always appealed to him.
"It's very scholarly and very gentlemanly, unlike trial work. Trial work is a lot more rough and tumble," Fred said. "With an appeal, there's no jury, the case has already been tried, there's one lawyer on each side making a case to a panel of judges. No constant objections like you see on TV."
Stepping into the classroom
He didn't know it at the time, but he needed those years both arguing before federal judges and helping to write their opinions to prepare for the demands of teaching at Marylhurst.
"Stepping into a Marylhurst classroom is like stepping into a courtroom," Fred commented. "My students' favorite game is 'stump the chump' – they really work to keep me on my toes."
He loves teaching in the MBA and Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies programs, because the students bring such diverse backgrounds and a love of learning to the classroom. Many MAIS students, for example, are working in the business world, but they want to integrate philosophy, history, literature and other subjects into their studies.
"They're not embarrassed to admit those things matter," Fred commented. "You just don't have the problem of motivating students here. It's so nice to teach in an environment where students truly want to be here and they really want to learn."
And he hopes that learning never ends for them, just as it has never ended for him.
"I hope students don't view any specific class I teach as vocational training," Fred said. "I want them to see it as true education.
"I want my students never to stop wanting to learn, and I hope that the classes they take from me re-stimulate the desire for learning they had when they first went to college. There's so much to know about history, philosophy, languages, music – I try to make a connection among all of them in my classes."
Magister dixit, scientia ipsa potestas est.
(For the translation and more, take a class from Fred)