Cornell receives 2019 L. Hart Wright Award for Teaching Excellence

By Kristy Demas
U-M Law

“Professor Cornell conducts his class like a beautiful symphony, out of which the theory of contracts can be heard in a loud, clear, and delightfully stimulating way.” So reads one of the many recommendations nominating Nicolas Cornell for the 2019 L. Hart Wright Award for Excellence in Teaching—a recognition that was both unanticipated and humbling for Cornell.

“It came as a real surprise. It’s an enormous honor, especially given the incredible colleagues that I have here at Michigan,” Cornell said. “It still feels like I have a lot to improve upon, but I take this to be a big vote of confidence from my students. I try to push them very hard, and this tells me that they appreciate the challenge. They are all so committed and talented and empathetic, which is the only reason why my classroom works at all.”

Cornell joined the Law School faculty in 2017, coming to Ann Arbor from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he taught legal studies and business ethics. At Michigan Law he teaches Contracts and Contract Theory, which he infuses with private law theories and moral philosophy.

3L Victoria Allen believes his teaching is creating a new generation of lawyers, due in part to how he combines his doctrinal interests with his philosophy background.

“He integrates black letter law with a social awareness that the profession has been resisting for the last few decades …imbuing compassion in his subject matter, setting himself apart, even at a place like Michigan,” said Allen.

Another student nomination praised Cornell’s approach to cold calls.

“Professor Cornell is beloved because he demands that you think beyond the assigned reading…A substantial portion of the cold call centers around concepts crucial to understanding the reading but not written on the face of the reading. Students must justify and attack reasoning that is not explicitly stated, compare and contrast cases that may have been read weeks earlier, and be their very best selves, because that is who Professor Cornell wants to teach: our best selves.”

Interestingly, Cornell finds he gains just as much from his students.

“The thing I love the most is the learning,” he said. “When you teach an idea or a doctrine or a set of cases, you are pushed to try to make sense of it in a deeper way. I’m constantly trying to anticipate all the possible complexities, but then I always see things in a new light as students react and ask questions.”

Cornell makes it a point to encourage his students to delve deeply into the subject matter. One of his self-imposed purposes in the classroom is to generate a need for inquiry in his students.

“I want them to see the puzzles and feel the pull of them,” he said. “I feel that a class is successful when I see students coming away a bit puzzled and wanting to figure it out.”

There are times, however, when Cornell worries that his methods have gone awry.

“There was a moment last semester when, at the end of class, I went through something a little quickly on the board. When class ended, I looked up and saw pockets of students all over the room discussing and trying to explain the problem to each other. Maybe I should have taken that to be bad—I didn’t explain things well. But I was really heartened by the way the students were visibly invested in trying to make sense of things with each other.”

According to 1L Dillon Roseen, Cornell’s interest in his students’ well-being is well known. “It’s so evident that Professor Cornell is personally invested in the success of all his students, and that he believes each student has the potential to excel in law school. He made a real effort to make the class a welcoming and accessible community for everybody…from extending office hours and explaining difficult concepts, to integrating timely, real-world issues into class discussions.”

An excerpt from another student recommendation echoes that sentiment. “Professor Cornell’s desire for law students to be their very best is what makes him special in my eyes. He knows that he stands before human beings with loads of potential and demands that we live up to our potential.”

The L. Hart Wright Award is named after the beloved Michigan Law professor who was renowned in the field of tax law. The student-nominated award is presented annually to a faculty member by the Law School Student Senate. Cornell will receive his award in fall 2019.