Shkolnick


Dean Emeritus Rod Shkolnick in Creighton’s School of Law, where he has spent the last 50 years as an administrator and professor.

Celebrating 50 Years in the Law School

By Eugene Curtin

He's a Jewish boy from Iowa who became dean of a Catholic law school, who is legendary for being down-to-earth and funny in the oh-so-serious world of the law, and who labored as dean of Creighton University's law school to integrate a flood of female students into an institution that barely had female restrooms.

In 1961, he was a young man with a wife and two children, looking for a job. In 2011, he marks the 50th anniversary of having secured that job, along the way rising to the top of Creighton's law faculty where he earned a reputation for maintaining peace and harmony among healthy egos through the use of humor and a reflexive respect for differing opinions.

Rod Shkolnick was born in 1931, the son of Jake and Jeanette Shkolnick of Davenport, Iowa. His father worked in the family heating and plumbing business.

But law attracted the younger Shkolnick, and between 1949 and 1955 he made his way through the University of Iowa law school. Those were fortunate years to be in college since war was raging in Korea. Shkolnick received the traditional deferments but believed he owed the country something. So in 1955 he signed up for infantry duty with the U.S. Army. As things turned out, he tested well on the Army's intelligence scale and was sent instead to New York to serve two years with counterintelligence, a disappointingly unromantic assignment that Shkolnick said involved a great deal of paper pushing but precious little spooking.

He applied for a teaching position at Creighton in 1961 after practicing law in Ottumwa, Iowa, for two years and serving two years as a researcher on the faculty of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

And he got the job, a simple fact that Shkolnick has never forgotten.

"I have a great sense of loyalty," he said. "I'll never forget that the Jesuits gave me a job, and for a Jewish boy from Iowa, that's not bad."

Marianne Culhane, current dean of Creighton's law school, said Shkolnick, who "flunked retirement," exemplifies the ideal of a student-centered professor.

"He wasn't trying to make a name for himself so he could move on to Harvard or somewhere," she said. "He wanted to be here for the students, and that is what this school emphasizes -- the importance of being there for students, even after class."

She remembers her own arrival on Creighton's faculty in 1977 and the relief she felt after meeting Shkolnick and finding him to be welcoming and supportive.

"We taught in many of the same fields and he was just a wonderful mentor and very encouraging -- which I really needed since this was my first teaching job," Culhane said.

The mentoring role has defined Shkolnick, Culhane said, and generations of students have felt the magic. She recalls the occasion when grateful students collected enough money to send Shkolnick and his wife, Lois, on a roundtrip excursion to the Rose Bowl to root for the Iowa Hawkeyes.

"He is very, very beloved," she said.

Told of this widespread affection, Shkolnick smiles wryly.

"Living long will do that," he said. "People tend to think well of you if you stick around long enough."

Shkolnick's specialty has been contracts, an area of law that promises few Perry Mason moments but which has always fascinated Shkolnick, a fascination he has shared with generations of first-year law students.

Indeed, recalls Mike Fenner, Shkolnick's love of this topic was defined one day when he blurted out: ‚"I can't believe they pay me to do this."

Fenner, who teaches constitutional law, is a Creighton law school veteran himself, having joined the faculty in 1972. Looking back over the decades, he notes that the current law school (Ahmanson Law Center) was built under the deanship of Steve Frankino. But a building needs a pulse, and Fenner said Shkolnick provided that.

"Rod Shkolnick is responsible for its heart and soul," he said.

"By example, through his influence on faculty hiring, particularly in the early years, and by applying a little pressure here and there, Rod made this an unusual law school where the members of the faculty get along with each other, respect each other and care about others as human beings."

Shkolnick served as dean from 1977-1988 before returning to the classroom. Those years were marked by the usual administrative advancements -- professors hired, courses designed or redesigned.

But a unique challenge was the arrival of women in large numbers, a time quite different from today when about a third of law students are women.

Shkolnick remembers those years with characteristic good humor.

"We had already seen some undergraduate women here," he said. "But it was still fairly unusual at that time to have women in the law school."

Women found a supportive dean in Shkolnick. He appointed two as assistant deans -- Barbara Gaskins, JD'76, and Catherine Boe, JD'79.

He told his female assistant deans what he would have told a male dean:

"I told them I needed someone to help me stay out of trouble," he said.

And both fulfilled the role admirably, he said -- the one was quite direct when he was about to do something inadvisable, the other more subtle.

"But they each told me what they thought," he said. "And that is so important. You've got to be able to recognize that people are smarter and wiser than you and use what they bring to you."

Gaskins, who served as Shkolnick's assistant dean for almost all his term, said young women were "oddities‚" in the legal world when she became Shkolnick's student in 1973.

Gaskins recalls there were about 22 women in her graduating class, about 10 percent of the class total. The class ahead of her, she remembers, had only half as many, and the class ahead of that had just two women.

"He was the best mentor any man or woman could have had," she said. "He was amusing, unassuming and very encouraging."

Shkolnick, she said, also served as a bridge to the legal world.

"He encouraged me to get involved with the bar and with the school, pushed me to be more outgoing so that I could meet people, and he encouraged them to accept me, too," she said.

Michaela White, BA'76, JD'79, who, like Shkolnick, teaches contract law at Creighton today, was just another freshman law student back in 1976 in Shkolnick's Section B Contracts class.

White describes her experience in Shkolnick's class as an "epiphany‚" in which she saw a standard of teaching worth emulating.

"I want to be like Rod when I grow up!" she remembers thinking. "He has been my mentor and advisor ever since. Obviously, Rod casts a very long shadow.

"I owe Rod so much for the help he has given me over the years."

In addition to welcoming women to the world of law, Shkolnick said he wanted his deanship to be characterized by an atmosphere of collegiality.

"I learned a lot about deaning from Steve Frankino," he said. "His great talent was getting what the school needed from the central administration. My goal was to create an atmosphere of friendship and cooperation, and I think I did that."

While teaching at Creighton, Shkolnick also became a partner in the Omaha law firm of McGrath-North in 1966. As the student body of the law school became much larger, Shkolnick had to decide whether to remain a full-time teacher or to practice law.

"I had a passion to teach," Shkolnick said, so he chose Creighton.

Shkolnick was accompanied through the decades by his wife, Lois, who died in 2004 at the age of 72.

To her, he said, he owes the most.

As a young woman, Lois was admitted to medical school. But she gave it up to support Shkolnick along his career path and to ensure that their children received a sound upbringing.

"She was asked once if she ever regretted giving up medical school," recalled Shkolnick, who is still humbled and moved by her response. "She said she might have, had she not been married to me."

About the author: Curtin is a freelance writer in Omaha.

Honoring Shkolnick

Alumni and friends wishing to recognize Shkolnick on his 50 years of service to Creighton and its law students may want to consider a gift to the Rodney and Lois Shkolnick Endowed Scholarship, which the couple established in 1985. Gifts can be sent to the Office of Development, Creighton University, 2500 California Plaza, Omaha, NE, 68178, or make a gift online at creighton.edu/development/makegiftonline.

In addition, Shkolnick was honored at the law school's annual alumni dinner on Oct. 1. The celebration included a special tribute video, which can be found at here.