They received a standing ovation. Their names were invoked repeatedly. A portrait of them was pledged as the class gift. But Edgar and Jean Camper Cahn were not there Sunday when Antioch School of Law, product of their vision, sweat and sacrifice, graduated the last class the couple had admitted before being fired as its co-deans.
Instead, they were in their plaque- and citation-filled Northwest home, writing final papers in a continuing legal challenge to their 1980 dismissal by Antioch University.
Separately and together, they have long, distinguished records of going against the grain of the American legal establishment in order to make the practice of law more democratic.
Jean Cahn, daughter of a Baltimore doctor and graduate of Swarthmore College and Yale Law School, where she later taught, lost a 1971 fight with George Washington University to keep open its Urban Law Institute. She had directed the institute since 1968, fighting for funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity and integrating clinical practice into academic law studies.
Edgar Cahn, son of a well-known libertarian and scholar, earned a doctorate in English at Yale, where he also got his his law degree. He worked for the Justice Department before joining the Office of Economic Opportunity, whose legal services branch he and his wife helped to originate.
With the help of noted civil liberties attorney Joseph L. Rauh, the Cahns persuaded liberal Antioch University, "considered the Haight-Asbury of the academia," Jean Cahn said, to sponsor the law school in 1972.
Both now 47, the Cahns have been slowed by major illnesses--her severe stroke and subsequent paralysis in 1975 and his heart attack and open-heart surgery shortly after being fired by Antioch in 1980.
And they have been busy fighting the university's suit against them for $250,000 in damages for their refusal to relinquish control of law school funds, including large federal grants, to Antioch University. Having lost a claim in court that their dismissal as deans was illegal and that the law school was independent from the university itself, the Cahns said they are still seeking reinstatement as faculty members.
"We stood up as lawyers on behalf of clients and on behalf of the legal system," Edgar Cahn said. "We want to be vindicated by the courts for protecting the integrity of the system." They also want to remove the stigma of their mid-year dismissal. It was "like being court-martialed," he said.
Financially, they were "wiped out," Cahn said. "It was touch and go whether our own kids would even finish college, not to mention having the opportunities that we had and had tried to create for others. So it's been a battle for the last two years."
Their sons, Jonathan and Reuben, were seniors at Harvard and Stanford, respectively, when the Cahns were fired and are now first-year law students at Harvard and Yale.
The couple lost health insurance, vacation and sick leave, said Edgar Cahn. They said they also have been deprived of access to the library, students, secretarial support and other benefits rightfully theirs and essential to their current projects.
Jean Cahn is studying the efficacy of bar exams in measuring lawyer competency under a federal grant from the Fund for Improvement of Post-Secondary Education. Edgar Cahn works with the Citizens' Advocacy Center on developing the equivalent of a justice department for the Navajo nation, pursuing his longtime effort on behalf of American Indians. He also is studying the impact of technology on the future of the legal system, among other projects.
"I don't want to sound bitter, moaning, feeling sorry for myself, because I'm not," he said. "Yes, there's hurt. Sure there's the feeling of being in exile . . . a sense of grievance. But I am personally grateful to be alive . . . that this family hung together."
The homage paid them at Sunday's graduation ceremonies in recogniton of their efforts to train lawyers who would work for the disadvantaged is but a small measure of the impact the Cahns have had on legal education. Their work increasingly is influencing the legal system.
Wilbur Colom, one of their former students who practices in Jackson, Miss., recently became the first Antioch alumnus to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. When another became the first Antioch graduate to be named a judge in Dade County, Fla., 16 other graduates of the school who were working in that area telephoned and updated the Cahns on their careers.
"They've learned that you can do good from a lot of different directions, and they've just spread out. Wherever you go, where lawyers don't normally go, you'll find Antioch students," Edgar Cahn said proudly.