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Michael Collins
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Tulane's Collins Joins Virginia Law

Elizabeth Katz ‘09
Law Weekly Staff Writer

Professor Michael Collins had spent most of his career teaching at Tulane when Hurricane Katrina hit one week into the fall 2005 semester. Although Collins expected that classes would resume in a few days, he headed to Charlottesville, where his fiancée lives, to wait out the worst of the disaster. Soon he learned he would be unable to return to New Orleans for the semester, so he settled into life in Charlottesville, covering a class for a professor who needed surgery.

“I was already scheduled to teach a course at UVA in the spring,” he said, emphasizing how welcoming he found UVA students. “I just showed up a little early.”

In mid-October Collins finally was able to return to New Orleans for just a day to gather some of his belongings.

“All I can say is that it was like driving through a war zone,” he said. “It’s a little better now in some places, but New Orleans has a long way to go.”

This semester Collins is back at Tulane, but in January he will join the UVA faculty permanently as the Joseph M. Hartfield Professor of Law. With experience teaching at Boston University, George Washington University, Ohio State, and the University of Richmond, Collins said he has been struck by how the culture at every law school is different and said he finds the culture at UVA very attractive.

“The faculty takes scholarship and teaching seriously, and there are so many here who are outstanding at both—that’s pretty unusual,” he said. “Now that I’m going to be here, I feel an incentive to do better at both, if only to avoid embarrassment.”

He said he is similarly impressed by the students.

“They’re smart, they’re interested, and they seem to take their studies seriously—well, most of the time—as they should,” he said.

Collins said one of his proudest accomplishments is his appointment to teach at UVA, but his path to professorship was somewhat unusual. After finishing his undergraduate studies, Collins began graduate school in the Stanford Classics department. While serving as a teaching assistant for a course on Roman law, he met several enrolled law students.

“Their way of thinking about the subject struck me as bizarre, but interesting—very much unlike the way I (or any one else in the department) was coming at the material,” he said. “I guess I wanted to learn to think like they did.”

His law student friends convinced him to switch to law school, which he said had the added benefit of not requiring a doctoral thesis. His time studying classics taught him helpful scholarly habits and spurred his continuing interest in the development of Roman law. Collins said the switch to law school seemed to end his path to academia.

“If you’d asked me in law school, being a law professor was probably the last thing on my mind, although I did have a couple of exemplary teachers,” he recalled. “I’m not sure what happened along the way.”

After he left law school, Collins practiced commercial and employment law in Los Angeles and civil rights law in New Orleans before completing a Bigelow Fellowship at the University of Chicago Law School. While practicing, he found he missed the academic aspect of law.

 “I actually got more interested in law only after I had left school, and then realized how little time I had to pursue my newfound interests,” he explained.

Since making the transition to teaching, Collins has received Tulane Law School’s Distinguished Teaching Award three times, co-authored casebooks on federal jurisdiction and civil procedure, and authored a handbook on constitutional tort litigation. He said his main interests are in jurisdiction and the history of the federal courts, and he is “particularly interested in the federalism dimension of federal courts law.”

“Right now I’m writing about the historical relationship between pleading and jurisdiction—how the common law pleading regime of the early Republic impacted the manner in which federal jurisdiction could be asserted and how it limited the ways it could be challenged,” he said. “I know it sounds like ancient history, but it may have something to tell us about how jurisdictional challenges might be regulated today.”

Collins said he enjoys teaching new courses, although he tries not to let students know when that is.

“I can’t tell you what my favorite class is to teach, but I can tell you what my least favorite was: Administrative Law,” he added. “Not that the subject wasn’t interesting—I just found teaching it to be impossible. It is the only class I have taught only once.”

Come next semester Collins will be teaching Evidence, but until then he will be busy finishing up his last semester at Tulane.

“I seem to be spending most of my spare time saying goodbye to old friends and enjoying the local cuisine,” he said.