Students and faculty gathered to attend a lecture by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser ’90 in observance of Constitution Day last Wednesday, September 27. Constitution Day itself is normally celebrated on September 17. The event was held in The Scheuer Room, which is about 22 miles from Independence Hall, where the document was signed over two centuries ago.
Weiser graduated from Swarthmore in 1990 and describes his time on campus as a formative experience that instilled in him a lifelong passion for learning. He entered the college intending to pursue a career in medicine, but left with a political science degree. In an interview with The Phoenix, Weiser described his academic transformation.
“I took Calc 2 my first semester and I failed and got Cs in biology, chemistry,” he said. “My mom had told me not to take political science classes, because … I could just read the newspaper.”
Political science Professor Richard Rubin, who taught for 27 years at the college, was a friend and mentor of Weiser and had a profound impact on his Swarthmore experience.
Weiser has remained engaged with the Swarthmore community. In 2004, he collaborated with three other former students, including Professor Keith Reeves, to form the Richard Rubin Scholar Mentoring Program, which provides support and mentorship to students from underrepresented backgrounds.
After graduating from New York University Law School, Weiser clerked for two Supreme Court justices: Byron White and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
“[Justice Ginsberg] will remain the most demanding boss I ever had,” he said, laughing. “Her mantra was get it right and keep it tight. If she thought you hadn’t, she told you.”
But he considers his most rewarding job to be a clerkship for Federal Court of Appeals Judge David Ebel in the 1990s, where he had the opportunity to hone his legal writing and critical thinking skills.
At the age of 29, Weiser applied to be a professor at University of Colorado, Boulder, and entered into Academia.
While at UC Boulder, Weiser became involved in political campaigns and advised local government. He went on to serve as the dean of its law school, where he founded an interdisciplinary research center focused on supporting technological entrepreneurship in the community. He also was tapped to serve in legal positions in both the Clinton and Obama administrations.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be great to come back and serve in the Hillary Clinton administration,” Weiser said. “But that obviously didn’t happen.”
President Trump’s victory in 2016 spurred Weiser’s decision to run for office. In 2018, he ran for Colorado Attorney General as a first-time candidate and put the office back into Democratic hands for the first time in over a decade.
His Constitution Day lecture was titled “Our Aspirational Constitution.” Following his remarks, he fielded a wide range of questions from students and faculty. The event was arranged by political science professor Keith Reeves and well-attended by students and faculty. Retired political science professor Carol Nackenoff and President Valerie Smith were also among those present.
Weiser opened by encouraging attendees to examine the record of American transgressions from slavery to Japanese internment, but also encouraged them to read and study Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, his second inaugural address, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” He sees the Constitution, too, as a deeply aspirational document that can help us find our way toward a more perfect union.
“All of us have a stake in defending our constitutional commitments and how they constitute what is best about America,” he said.
Weiser made a strong case for the importance of our national institutions, which, he argued, were under siege during the Trump presidency. He stressed the importance of engaging in dialogue and joining together to work on common projects, citing political science research suggesting that people could become less divided if they observed politicians treating each other with more respect.
“What we saw on January 6 would be the opposite of that,” he said. “It is the epitome of how violence, demonization, and polarization is a threat to Democracy itself.”
He ended his remarks with a quote about Fred Rogers’— of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — vision of a public square where political discourse was built on a fundamental promise of inclusivity and civility and urged attendees to look for ways to listen to opposing viewpoints.
One questioner asked about how Swarthmore students can have an impact when it feels like many people don’t have access to the kind of dialogue and ideas that Weiser introduced with his speech — thinking critically about the constitution and the role it plays in shaping how we think about notions of justice, freedom, and equality.
Weiser pointed to opportunities for engaged scholarship and “inside-out programs” on campus as opportunities for listening and engaging with other and potentially differing perspectives — a practice he regards as essential to living up to “our founding vision.”
Weiser also urged students interested in tackling social challenges to consider applying to law school. He explained that the long-term payoff was essential for success in his career.
“As I think about the return on the investment of law school, I think it’s a better bet than a lot of other training grounds for people who want to make a social impact,” he said in an interview with The Phoenix.
As far as entering politics goes, Weiser, who is running for re-election in 2022, cautioned Swarthmore’s would-be elected officials against planning too far into the future.
“Trusting in the universe and not trying too hard to force things is an important mindset.”