Endowment honors Allin’s influence

One of the selling points of a college like Cornell is the fact that professors get to know you—you spend time with them, they advise and mentor you, and they prepare you for life after graduation in a way larger schools cannot.

Politics Professor Craig Allin
Politics Professor Craig Allin

That was the experience Beth Knickerbocker ’89 had, and it influenced her life so deeply that she’s given $100,000 to endow a fund to honor the professor she credits with shaping her path, Craig Allin. The money will support the college’s Center for Law and Society, which Allin helped to found and still advises.

When Knickerbocker arrived at Cornell, Allin was the first professor she met. He was her advisor for all four years and, as a politics major, she took classes with him throughout her time on campus. At their first meeting, she said, Allin looked at her student file and told her how she’d be prepared, that she would be able to go to law school, and that by the time she graduated, she could be a member of the Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society.

“Four years later, everything he said had happened,” she said. “He found things in me I didn’t even know.”

She went on to law school at the University of Iowa, and is now counsel in the regulatory and legislative activities division of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in the U.S. Treasury.

Allin said that when he’s advising students, his method is straightforward—he treats them like the young adults they are. When they ask for his opinion on their decisions, he’ll offer it, but first he reminds them that the decisions they’re making are about their own life, not his, and that they need to follow the path that will make them happiest.

“I try to steer students toward finding their own bliss,” he said.

Many of the students he’s advised since he started teaching at Cornell in 1972 were thinking seriously about going to law school. Part of the process is having realistic conversations about what’s the right aspiration, he said, and where their chances are at various schools. That isn’t a negative, though. Oftentimes, he said, students need to be persuaded to apply to better, more competitive schools; they don’t realize how well prepared they are and how good their prospects are at competitive law schools.

“Places like Cornell are really the best places in the world to prepare for law school,” he said. “No one does law school prep better than the top liberal arts colleges.”

“I try to steer students toward finding their own bliss.”

—Craig Allin

Part of the reason is that students learn to think critically, speak well, research, and write persuasively, regardless of their majors.

“I’m very hard pressed to think of a department on campus that wouldn’t be represented among Cornell College law school students,” Allin said.

One-on-one interactions with faculty members in the classroom and beyond is the best possible preparation for graduate and professional school.

“Schools like Cornell teach undergraduates the way big universities teach graduate students,” he said.

The Center for Law and Society has also been an enormous boost to students who are interested in studying law, Allin said. The center offers law school visits, the opportunity to join the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity, test preparation, and advising. It also sponsors the college’s nationally-ranked Mock Trial program, which is just nine years old but has put the college on the map, and now attracts prospective students interested in mock trial in the same way the athletics program attracts prospective students who are athletes.

“Mock Trial has been the single most important program for the Center for Law and Society,” Allin said. “It’s not the only thing, but in terms of recruiting, giving students opportunities, and raising the college’s national profile, it’s been the biggest and best thing the center has done.”

Allin advises the center, but is quick to give the credit for its success to RJ Holmes-Leopold ’99, who handles the day-to-day operations, and to mock trial coach Abbe Stensland.

“The success is because of gifted students and gifted leaders,” he said.

Knickerbocker includes Allin among those gifted leaders, which is why she has given the gift in his honor. Not only were the classes he taught valuable preparation—she said his Constitutional Law course helped send her to law school better prepared than many of her peers—but his advice and guidance helped her find her place in the world.

“He really encourages students to explore their positions,” she said.

For example, when she wanted to start a chapter of College Republicans on campus, he was supportive, despite his well-known love of Democratic politics.

“Things can be so acidic now that you can’t sit down and have a discussion about issues without it getting ugly,” she said. “But you can have a very professional dialogue about issues and explore multiple sides, while also exploring solutions. That is really how politics should be dealt with, so it was great to get that from Professor Allin.”