Former Pa. Gov. Corbett reprises role as teacher with college courses
Life has a funny way of taking people full circle, and no one knows that better than former Gov. Tom Corbett.
After a legal career that included stints as an assistant district attorney, U.S. attorney and Pennsylvania attorney general, Corbett, who was elected governor in 2010, is back in the classroom.
He's teaching at St. Vincent College near Latrobe and the Duquesne University School of Law, reprising a role he played in 1972 when he taught history and civics to high school students in the Pine Grove School District.
The irony is not lost on the 66-year-old Shaler Republican.
He lost a hard-fought battle for re-election last November following a campaign in which his opponents cast him as an anti-education governor.
It would be hard to make that argument while watching Corbett — dressed in his signature dark suit, tie, white shirt and cuff links — take students through their paces on a dreary Wednesday afternoon in Room 204 as he teaches a Duquesne law class.
He smiles, cracks jokes about the process of bringing complex policy initiatives to fruition in Harrisburg, and engages in a brisk give-and-take with second- and third-year law students.
They are covering policy issues ranging from the state's role in crime and corrections, where he sought to reduce incarceration rates, to health care, where he battled mandates that were a result of Obamacare.
Asked about the best part of teaching, Corbett doesn't hesitate: “It's the students. They're great. There's a real energy here.”
At Duquesne, he can tap his experience in public life for a class on the law, public policy and the executive branch.
At St. Vincent, he can reach back to that, as well as his private-sector experience as counsel to Waste Management, for an undergraduate course in environmental law.
Moving from public office to academia isn't unusual.
Others who have traveled that route include former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is president of Purdue University; former Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, who became a professor of political science at Northeastern University; and former Oklahoma governor and U.S. Sen. David Boren, who is president of the University of Oklahoma.
During a recent class at Duquesne, Corbett invited his former secretary of Transportation, Barry Schoch, to help explain how they moved his signature $2.4 billion transportation bill through a legislature that was reluctant to approve any tax increases.
Their secret for amassing votes?
Spelling out the public safety and economic consequences of failing to act, and emphasizing the opportunities for lawmakers to be part of the effort to preserve and rebuild Pennsylvania's critical transportation infrastructure.
David Zimmerman of Reading is among the more vocal students, questioning Corbett repeatedly about the process and staying after class to ask more questions.
“It's not your typical law class,” Zimmerman said. “You get to see and hear from people on the ground about how things are done in the real world.”
Corbett, who has banned recording in class, pulls no punches about the sometimes messy process of ushering initiatives through the legislature.
Duquesne Law School Dean Ken Gormley, who approached Corbett about teaching shortly after the election last year, couldn't be happier.
Ever conscious of the need to present a balanced perspective, Gormley paired the former governor with Duquesne professors Joe Mistick and John Rago — staunch Democrats with backgrounds in state and local government — for a course titled “Law, Public Service and the Executive Branch.”
“The response from students has been extremely enthusiastic,” Gormley said.
Gormley said the former governor typically arrives on campus early and well-prepared for class.
It's like old times for Corbett and Mistick.
They met when Mistick was executive secretary to the late Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff and Corbett was U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania. The unlikely pair forged a strong partnership as they started “Weed and Seed,” an anti-drug program that debuted in Pittsburgh and became a template for similar efforts across the country.
At Duquesne, they take turns, sometimes prodding one another with inside jokes, offering students different perspectives and pointing out how some things never change in politics, regardless of which party rules.
“We have a tradition here of training lawyers for public service, so this is right in our sweet spot,” Mistick said.
“I always wanted to give something back,” Corbett said. “What I like about Duquesne is it's almost identical to my law school in San Antonio, St. Mary's. It was the working person's law school.”
In a decade in the spotlight in Harrisburg, first as attorney general and then as governor, Corbett acknowledged that the pace back home, where he divides his time among the classroom, home-improvement projects and his wife, Sue, and their grandchildren, has its appeals. He is planning for next semester.
This fall, he is teaching with professor Gabriel Pellathy at St. Vincent.
Next semester, Corbett will be on his own in the classroom, teaching “State and Local Politics.”
“I always thought I'd do this at some point. I thought that would be four years from now, but I guess God always has a plan,” Corbett said, smiling.
Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or firstname.lastname@example.org.