As he explored Choeung Ek, which lies just outside Cambodia’s bustling capital city of Phnom Penh, Vice Dean Larry Cunningham was struck by the strips of clothing and blindfolds that are still on the ground of what’s come to be known as the “Killing Fields.”
Dean Cunningham was in Cambodia for four weeks this fall as a participant in the Fulbright Specialist Program, which sends U.S. faculty and professionals to serve as expert consultants on curriculum, faculty development, institutional planning, and related subjects at academic institutions abroad.
“Understanding Cambodia begins with understanding and appreciating its recent history,” Dean Cunningham explains. Just 40 years ago, about one-third of Cambodia’s population was killed under the brutal Khmer Rogue regime. “But the Khmer Rouge didn’t just kill people,” he adds. “They eradicated institutions: family, law, education, art, music, and commerce, to name a few. The effects of the genocide will be felt for generations.”
In many respects, the country is starting from scratch, with the support of the United Nations, foreign governments, and local NGOs. “More importantly, many of its people—including law students—are committed to improving the country,” Dean Cunningham says.
This was the backdrop to his Fulbright work at the Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE), Cambodia’s first higher education institution and its only public law school. For the assignment, Dean Cunningham developed and taught three short courses in Legal Writing: one for RULE’s first-year LL.M. students, one for second-year students in its Public International Law LL.M. program, and one for second-year students in its International Business Law LL.M. program.
“These LL.M. programs are relatively new, and they’ve identified Legal Writing as an important subject,” says Dean Cunningham. “I developed a four-week curriculum, which they can then use as is or expand into longer courses.” He also advised on their academic programs, and will follow up with recommendations for improving their curriculum, which is already quite strong.
There were about 100 students between the three classes, which Dean Cunningham taught at night in English. Most of the students weren’t native English speakers, and their experience varied from high level government officials, to lawyers and business people, to recent law graduates.
“Since I had only four weeks with the students, my goal was pretty modest: to introduce them to basic concepts of legal writing and analysis,” Dean Cunningham says. “I tried to keep class sessions simple, with lecture, demonstration, practice, and group feedback. The aim was for the students to come away from the classes with an understanding of the ‘formula’ that lawyers use to convey legal analysis in written form.”
Even with his modest goal, Dean Cunningham made a big impact in a short time. "My colleagues and I were delighted to work with Dean Cunningham,” says Tom Pearson, RULE’s LL.M. program director. “Our two-year International LL.M. programs are quite new, and Dean Cunningham's legal research and writing courses as well as his advice and assistance regarding our research, writing, and analysis curriculum and other matters were invaluable. Our students have had nothing but positive feedback and have learned new skills."
During his Fulbright term, Dean Cunningham had an opportunity to meet with the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh and with several NGOS, including the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, the International Justice Mission, the Center for the Study of Humanitarian Law, and the Arbitration Council Foundation. “I was impressed with the important work they’re doing to move a young Cambodia forward,” he shares.
This work is undertaken, Dean Cunningham notes, in a country where few legal resources are publically available. “My time in Cambodia has given me a new perspective on many of the things we take for granted in the United States,” he says. “As imperfect as our legal system can be, we’re fortunate to have a system of publicly available laws and that our institutions are based on rule-of-law principles.”
Dean Cunningham returns to St. John’s Law with a renewed appreciation for the role of legal education in society and the value of teaching in a simple, clear manner that focuses on achieving stated outcomes. He also comes home with a newfound respect for the people of Cambodia and the importance of telling their story.
“I’ll miss my students, who were welcoming to this American visitor,” he says. “The future of their country is in their hands. I give them credit for looking to build their knowledge and skills in the law, at a time when the country desperately needs good people in all of its institutions.”
To learn more about Dean Cunnigham's Fulbright experience, you can visit his blog, My Fulbright in Cambodia.