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Oliver Goodenough

A photo of Oliver Goodenough
There’s an interest among students in learning for the good it can do for others and not just for themselves, and that’s unusual these days.”

Professor of Law and Director of Scholarship

Oliver Goodenough once donned a black t-shirt and pinch-hit as a spotlight operator during a Billy Joel concert in Russia—a favorite memory of his seven years as a New York entertainment and corporate lawyer. But he found his calling during a stint as a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania: "I realized that teaching would give me the ability to think speculatively about legal problems and not just instrumentally," he says. "I could focus on ‘What is the nature of X?’ rather than ‘How do I achieve X?’"

Today, after 17 years on the Vermont Law School faculty, Goodenough has carved out a national name for his research in three emerging fields: neuroscience and the law, digital corporations, and innovative corporate structures. Although he is a faculty fellow at Harvard University and an adjunct professor at Dartmouth, teaching business and entertainment law at VLS "is my first obligation," he says. He incorporates his leading-edge research into such courses as Digital Drafting and The Law and Human Nature: "It gives students a leg up in finding that important first job—and if they make cutting-edge approaches an intellectual habit, they will have more rewarding and productive lives in practice and beyond."

VLS, he says, has made his research possible: "It encourages a wide range of scholarly activities, unlike some schools where you are pushed into the molds they want. The attitude here is, ‘We want the work to be good, but we'll let you have a long leash on the topics you want to be good about.’" As head of the faculty scholarship program, he helps other professors publish their work in an increasingly digital environment. Goodenough's own scholarly achievements were recognized in 2010 when he was selected as the second recipient of the Richard Brooks Faculty Scholarship Prize, an award presented to a faculty member "who has consistently exhibited the highest standards of scholarship."

Goodenough coedited the first scholarly book on neuroscience and the law, Law and the Brain (Oxford University Press, 2004). In laboratories in London and Berlin, he has used fMRI brain scanning to probe the interaction between areas of the brain linked to intuitive morality—one's inner compass—and those parts linked to external morality, societal laws and norms. Copyrights are a case in point: "People you would trust to return your pen or a $1,000 bill will blithely download music into i-Pods," he says. "We seem to have a hard time grasping that works of the intellect are property." If, as his research indicates, our brains are hard-wired that way, "Copyright as we know it may be cooked."

As codirector of the Law Lab at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Goodenough is helping design software to allow a corporation to exist totally in cyberspace. Vermont became the first state to pass enabling legislation: Goodenough helped draft the Digital Corporations Initiative, and his wife of 25 years, State Representative Alison Clarkson, sponsored the bill. In other research, he is using game theory to devise corporate structures that promote collaboration rather than conflict.

Goodenough's upbringing was filled with stimulating dinner conversations: his father was an anthropology professor at Penn and his mother was a teacher, social psychologist, and author. Today he, his wife, and their two sons, Ward and William, "are happy talkers, all," about current events and culture, he says. He devotes to teaching about half his time during the school year; the remainder and off-term goes to research ("I juggle a lot-and I work most weekends"). He also gardens and sings in choral groups, often leading Res Musicata, the VLS singing group.

He calls his 1992 arrival at VLS "a lucky piece of mutual selection." Today, he says, "the school has more polish, but the spirit is similar: there's an interest among students in learning for the good it can do for others and not just for themselves, and that's unusual these days."

As for that last name-yes, Goodenough does get ribbed about it. His standard response: "The name sets a standard I hope to achieve with some regularity!"