Professor Andrew Popper Wins 2009-10 American University Scholar-Teacher of the Year Award

It was 1978, and Andrew Popper was an endangered torts lawyer in Washington, DC.

“During this time, tort reform was in vogue, designed to limit the reach of civil justice,” Popper said.  “In administrative law, we were seeing the end of the Carter administration and the start of the Reagan administration, and with it the explosion of de-regulation theory.  The same was true in anti-trust law – the dominant ideology wanted the market to function on its own.”

After earning his LL.M. from George Washington University National Law Center, he had spent two years at the University Of Denver College Of Law as an assistant professor.  Upon his return, he discovered that his areas of specialization – torts, administrative law, and anti-trust law – were under siege. 

“Within three years, all three areas were the focus of very potent political discourse, and in some ways were in jeopardy,” Popper says. 

As a young expert on these topics, Popper began churning out testimony and long, heavily documented papers for congressional committees. 

“That’s being in Washington – a fairly new law professor invited to the Hill to share ideas and shape the destiny of legislation,” Popper said.  He balanced his scholarship with his role as an assistant professor at American University Washington College of Law. 

“It wasn’t a matter of traditional scholarship, it was preparing to testify on tort reform and other topics,” Popper said.  “I was lucky to be at a school where that was seen as one’s scholarly production.”

Discovering a Passion

Flash forward 31 years later, and Popper has been named the 2009-10 the American University “Scholar-Teacher of the Year”.  Though he loved being a lawyer, Popper had long harbored a desire to teach.  He soon found that the two jobs shared common characteristics.

“It’s a challenge to get across an idea, to hit the right cadence, to have the right level of engagement.  In practicing law, these are the same challenges – the ones that exist in a classroom.”

He has discovered a passion for teaching.

“There’s nothing like teaching.  Nothing like the Fall.  It’s that Torts class after about 3-4 weeks when things start to come together, and you see these remarkable changes in the students.  That keeps me coming back.”

“Andy is an active and respected professor with a long record of significant contributions to the scholarly life of the university – he is the embodiment of this award,” said Dean Claudio Grossman. “Over the course of his 31 years of exceptional service at the law school, he has consistently demonstrated recognized concern for students and colleagues, and a commitment to the highest standards of the profession.”

Richard Brusca ’81, now a complex civil litigation partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP,  was one of Popper’s first students.

“I was in Andy’s class in the second semester of my first year,” Brusca said.  “At that point he was one of the young, cool professors.  I guess one of the things that struck me about him was he showed me you can be a really smart lawyer and a regular person at the same time.”

Like many other former students, Brusca has maintained contact with Popper over the years since graduation.  Popper is chair of the admissions committee at the law school, and Brusca illustrated Popper’s commitment to students with a specific example of a former associate at his firm. 

“There was one person who worked here, it took them four years to get in[to WCL],” Brusco said.  “I think Andy figured out that she really wanted to go to law school.  She wound up graduating at the top of her class, and she came to work for me.  Each time she got rejected, Andy called me.”

“He really does spend an enormous amount of time on the admissions process,” Brusco said.  “He’s really focused on getting the right people for the school. It’s not just about numbers for him.”

Akira Shiroma, assistant dean of admissions and financial aid, works closely with Popper on the admissions committee and values his contributions as a bridge between the faculty and the admissions staff.

“He’s just phenomenal.  His knowledge and experience of admissions is quite vast, and he is definitely someone I rely on as a sounding board,” Shiroma said.  “I’ve worked at a variety of schools, and Andy’s the best I’ve seen.   He has the experience and knowledge of being a law professor, and he’s also a bridge between what we do in admissions, and the dean as well.”

Making a Lasting Impact

The impact that Popper has on students often stretches beyond the classroom.  He sponsored Andrew Sherman ’87 on his independent study program, and acted as a strong mentor for Sherman’s legal career.  A few years later, Sherman began teaching law himself at the University of Maryland.  Popper mentored him once again, this time guiding him in the craft of teaching. 

“Great teachers judge themselves by the success of their students,” Sherman said.  “I get the sense that when I’m telling Andy about a book or speech I’m working on, he’s excited about those things.  Now I get excited about things my students tell me about.”

Still, at this accomplished stage of his long career, Popper is operating as though he has unfinished business.

Since 2007, Popper has published two novels, Rediscovering Lone Pine (West, 2009), and Bordering on Madness: An American Land Use Tale (Carolina Academic Press, 2008), and three casebooks, Materials on Tort Reform (West, 2010); Administrative Law: A Contemporary Approach,1st and 2nd Edition (West 2008, West 2010, with McKee, Varona, and Harter), and, A Companion to Bordering on Madness: Cases, Scholarship, and Case Studies (Carolina Academic Press, 2008, with Avitabile and Salkin). 

“The last 3 years and the books I’ve written is the stuff that’s built up over the first 25 years of my career,” Popper said.  “My youngest went to college and I discovered time.”

“Andy thanks everyone by name who helps him with a book,” said Suriya Jayanti, a former Popper student who co-authored Administrative Law.  “There are very few professors who would co-author a book with someone just out of law school.” 

“A Lovely, Startling Moment”

Popper said that when he heard about his University Scholar-Teacher award, it was “a lovely, startling moment.” 

For others, the news was less of a shock.

“Not remotely surprised,” said Jayanti, when asked about her reaction. 

“I was really excited for him, not really surprised,”  said Joanna Hess ’11, one of Popper’s current students and a dean’s fellow for Popper in the Integrated Curriculum Program.  “He’s been a great faculty mentor.”

Popper couldn’t overstate how humbled he was by the award. 

“There are many people on our faculty that are phenomenal teachers.  I’m in awe of them.  There are people here at the head of their fields, and that’s most of the people here,” Popper said.  “When this award happened, you bet I was humbled.”

For Popper, the commitment to students is the driving force behind what he does each day.

“I can tell when I come to class as a guest lecturer how much his students love him,” Sherman said.  “I’m talking about a real love, by and around the students, which is very hard when you’ve been teaching 30-plus years.  There is a real authenticity in Professor Popper that comes out in the classroom.”

Current and former students can find Popper in his office, surrounded by books.

“I come visit him once every four months,” said Jayanti.  “I bake him cakes.  He’s always in his office, as far as I can tell he never leaves.”

Popper hasn’t lost his passion for teaching, nor for occasionally taking a front row seat in the legislative process.

“Even now, every time I get the chance,  I go into the Rayburn building, head down a hallway and have a seat in a hearing room,” Popper said.  “Every single time, I get that sense of being lucky.  Honest to God, my hair still stands on end.  Why would you want to be anywhere else?”

It’s safe to say that Popper’s students are asking themselves the same question.