Sunday, February 20, 2005
This week's Professor Spotlight is on the University of Hawai'i's Hazel Glenn Beh, who took an unusual path to teaching contracts, but it happy she did. As she likes to say, "Contracts no ka oi!" or, roughly, "Contracts is the best!"
Hazel Beh didn't start by planning to be a lawyer. After taking a B.A. from the University of Arizona in 1973, she moved to Hawai‘i and took a master's degree in social work at the University of Hawai‘i. She worked first at the State Senior Center, then at a Honolulu medical gerontology practice, while teaching part-time as a lecturer and instructor at UH's school of social work. She married a lawyer, but even that didn't really spark the idea of a legal career. "I think that drew me away from law school rather than to it," she says. "He and his friends shared dark memories of law school, particularly the Socratic Method and its tendency to leave you off balance, uncertain, and without confidence. So, I enjoyed my career as a social worker and resisted a persistent inner voice urging me to go to law school for some time."
While law school was on hold, she picked up a Ph.D. in American Studies at UH in 1985, and continued her work with the elderly. It was 1988 before she decided to try law school.
Better late than never. She had a stellar career at Hawai‘i's law school, where she finished first in her class in 1991, took a moot court award for best brief, finished second in the National Writing Contest, and served as a Comments Editor on the Hawai‘i Law Review. "It was probably better that I [put off law school]," she says now. "When I finally came to law school I was more mature and determined than I had been in my early college years." After graduation she clerked for Chief Justice Herman Lum of the Hawai‘i Supreme Court, spent a year in private practice and two years as deputy corporation counsel for the City of Honolulu, before joining the Hawai‘i faculty in 1995 as acting associate dean. She was promoted to full professor in 2003.
She's written on a wide range of subjects, and is noted for her teaching. She was named Hawai‘i's Outstanding Law Professor of the Year for 1998-99 and won the prestigious system-wide Board of Regents Excellence in Teaching Award in 2000. Her citation by the Board of Regents quoted a student: "Professor Beh is an educator by example. Anyone who spends any time at the law school knows that she is often the first professor to arrive and one of the last ones to leave. She not only lends an ear for support, but she offers a heart full of advice, compassion and inspiration." She has been a visiting professor at UC Hastings and Meijo University in Nagoya, Japan. In 2003 she was Chair of the Contracts Section of the AALS, and she is currently editor-in-chief of the Newsletter of the AALS Insurance Law Section.
Hazel on teaching Contracts:
I love teaching Contracts. Students with no interest in commercial law begin the course with apprehension. They soon realize that contract law is simply the law of keeping and breaking promises. Class discussions often focus on both the moral and pragmatic concerns raised by the delightful stories of barren cows, wayward sons, broken mill shafts, and bad nose jobs. Much to their own surprise, students find that the study of contract law is universally relevant, dynamic and not nearly as frightening as they first thought it would be.
Truth be told, I also like the Socratic Method. I call on students randomly and grill them on the facts and the reasoning of each case. I challenge them. I find that they soon begin to read more critically, listen more attentively, and stand their ground with greater conviction. I soften their anxiety with an encouraging note in their mailbox afterwards. I also distribute my teaching notes to students so they are not left in the dark for too long. I practice a kinder, gentler Socratic method than my husband recalls.
I really like being a professor because of the freedom I have to write about what I want to write about. When I write about contracts, it usually involves certain types of relationship between parties, usually ones with disparate power and information. I’ve written about the student-university contract, the insurer-insured contract, and the researcher-human subject contract. These unusual relationships between parties call for special treatment. But the richness of contract law is in its common law traditions. It is not so rule bound and inflexible that it cannot account for unique relationships among people.
Some of my writing recently has not concerned contract law. One of my other interests is exploring the ethical and legal dimensions of treating intersex and gender dysphoria in childhood and adolescence. Right now I’m considering what the limits are on parental authority to consent to medical and surgical treatment to make their children “normal.”
What a surprisingly narrow concept of normal so many of us have! As a parent, I understand that parental love can motivate parents to want to “normalize” their children. Of course parents want to protect their kids from stigma, shame, and rejection. However, in many instances these medical and surgical treatments have proved disastrous and have had unfortunate long-term consequences.
I think it a more realistic and superior approach to demand increased societal tolerance to our natural human variations and to show parents how to be front line crusaders for their child. Instead of subjecting children to unsound medical and surgical interventions, I’d like the law to find ways to empower parents to love, nurture and protect the child that nature has made.