In Memoriam: Phillip I. Blumberg, Former UConn School of Law Dean

Blumberg was a transformational leader, orchestrating the law school's move to its present campus and recruiting top faculty members.

Phillip I. Blumberg, dean of the UConn School of Law from 1974 to 1984, at his desk in 2004. He taught for several years after he stepped down and continued to write into his 90s. (UConn Photo)

Phillip I. Blumberg, the former Wall Street lawyer whose vision and leadership transformed the campus, faculty, and reputation of the University of Connecticut School of Law during his 10 years as dean, died Feb. 14, 2021, at the age of 101.

Blumberg had built a flourishing practice in mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street when he attended the 25th reunion of his Harvard Law Review officers’ group and concluded that their lives had become too narrow, he told an interviewer in 2009. Shortly thereafter he abruptly changed the direction of his career and became a professor at Boston University Law School. Six years later, in 1974, he was named dean of the University of Connecticut School of Law.

Over the next 10 years, Blumberg recruited top professors from around the nation and orchestrated the law school’s move from a drab and crowded brick building in West Hartford to the imposing former campus of the Hartford Seminary in Hartford’s West End. After he stepped down from the dean’s office in 1984, at the age of 65, he finished his seven-volume scholarly treatise The Law of Corporate Groups.

“I left Wall Street because it was time to do something else,” Blumberg said in 2002. “Half of my friends in the business world said I was crazy; the other half said it was wonderful. They were both right.”

Professor Richard Kay, who also arrived at UConn Law in 1974, remembers a dean with “a spine of steel” whose expectations were high and whose success at improving the law school’s standing remains unmatched.

“Whether dealing with the faculty, the staff, the students, or the administration in Storrs, he made clear that he expected nothing less than the very best we could produce,” Kay says.  “We are all now living with the result, a school whose impact on law and legal education is felt not just in Connecticut, but nationally and internationally.”

Blumberg was born Sept. 6, 1919, in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Lithuanian immigrants. His father, Hyman Blumberg, was a garment worker and a founder of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Hyman Blumberg became the union’s executive vice president and moved the family to New York, where Phillip attended public school, skipped several grades and entered Harvard College 10 days after his 16th birthday.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in government, he went on to Harvard Law School. Before his graduation, magna cum laude, in 1942, Blumberg was invited to clerk for Judge Learned Hand on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Instead, he joined the Army Air Corps and served as a judge advocate on circuit among air bases in Great Britain during World War II. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his service. The missed opportunity to clerk for Hand “was trivial by comparison” to the sacrifices of those who lost their lives in the war, Blumberg said in an oral history interview conducted by UConn Law Professor R. Kent Newmyer and Bruce M. Stave in 2009.

After the war, Blumberg worked for two years at a large Wall Street firm and then joined the boutique firm of Szold & Brandwen, later Szold, Brandwen, Meyers & Blumberg. He spent 20 years in a successful and lucrative practice focused on mergers and acquisitions and became president of Federated Mortgage Investors. The realization that it was time to change his career struck suddenly after the Harvard reunion.

“The fellows talked about nothing except who was making the most money in the class,” he later said. The next morning, while shaving, “I looked in the mirror and I said, ’Blumberg, You’re as bad as all the rest.’”

He took a position in 1968 as a professor at Boston University Law School at a salary equal to one third of his Wall Street earnings and remained there for six years. In 1974, when he was named dean of the UConn School of Law, he said in an interview with The Hartford Courant that his goals were to convert UConn Law from a good law school to a great one, to give law students extensive practical experience, and to attract more minority and female students.

He turned his attention almost immediately to moving the campus from the Asylum Avenue building, which he described as “desperately overcrowded” and, worse, “an unimaginative building, which makes it difficult for students to think largely of themselves and their aspirations.” By 1978 he had wrung $6 million from a reluctant state legislature and Gov. Ella Grasso to buy and renovate the neo-Gothic Hartford Seminary campus in the capital city’s West End. The law school moved there in 1984.

Blumberg had, meanwhile, been recruiting faculty. “Everybody talks about my contribution in getting our beautiful new campus,” he said in 2009. “I think the new faculty people played a more important role in the growth of the school.” Among the professors he hired were Loftus Becker, John Brittain, Mark Janis, Bruce Mann, Tom Morawetz, Richard Pomp and Carol Weisbrod.

Janis, hired in 1980 to build a program in international law, saw Blumberg bring the drive of a Wall Street lawyer to bear at a time when the law school needed it. “Phillip had very high expectations, for the faculty, for the staff, and he would let you know if you met those expectations or didn’t,” Janis says.

The law school was, for Blumberg, a mission, one that he shared with his friend and eventual successor, Hugh Macgill. Janis remembered many times finding them on weekends, working together in Blumberg’s office. “That’s what they did, seven days a week. They didn’t have work hours, they had a cause,” he says.

Weisbrod remembers Blumberg as “a man with an almost military sense of order” who could also be generous and loyal. “He appreciated the strengths of others and could be paternal in his concern for young academics. He was a friend who asked about the activities and progress of children,” she says.

Years after he stepped down, Blumberg recalled how the decision surprised his friends and colleagues. Yet it made perfect sense to him. “It’s not good for an institution to have the same leadership. It has to have a life of its own that doesn’t depend on any individual,” he said.

After he resigned as dean, he finally took the sabbatical he had deferred 10 years earlier when leaving Boston University Law School, devoting that time to The Law of Corporate Groups. Afterward, he returned as a professor to UConn Law, teaching corporate finance, business organizations, multinational corporations and corporate responsibility. He also continued to publish articles on corporate law and multinational corporations. He was a visiting lecturer at universities in The Netherlands, Poland and Australia and served as an advisor in three American Law Institute Restatements and on the Legal Advisory Committee of the New York Stock Exchange.

In his years teaching and writing after serving as dean, Blumberg remained an integral part of the law school. Rachele Torres, assistant director of admissions, remembers him as a tough but courtly professor with “a tender heart.” He never missed the annual faculty and staff holiday potluck, she says, and she would often see him walking to work along Fern Street.

“I stopped a few times and said, ‘Hi, Phillip, do you want a ride?’ and he always waved me off,” she says. He continued to walk to the law school throughout his 80s and into his 90s, she says.

During Blumberg’s tenure as dean, in 1976, his wife, Janet Mitchell Blumberg, died. In her memory, he donated generously to fund the restoration of the Great Hall in Hosmer Hall, which has since been known as Janet M. Blumberg Hall. Together they had four children, all of whom survive him: William, Peter, Elizabeth and Bruce.

He also leaves his wife, Ellen Ash Peters, whom he married in 1979, a year after she was appointed a justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court. Peters, a former Yale Law professor who taught at UConn Law as a visiting professor, subsequently served as the court’s chief justice from 1984 until 1996. In her honor, Blumberg established the Hon. Ellen Ash Peters Prize Scholarship and the Ellen Ash Peters Professorship. On his 80th birthday, in 1999, a group of friends established the Phillip I. Blumberg Professorship. He collected a multitude of awards, before and after his retirement, including an honorary LL.D (Doctor of Laws) from the UConn School of Law in 1994.

Blumberg retired from full-time teaching in 1990 but continued his scholarly pursuits. In 2010, when he was 91 years old, Cambridge University Press published his final book, his first in the field of legal history, Repressive Jurisprudence in the Early American Republic: The First Amendment and the Legacy of English Law.

“I regret that I did not have the opportunity to meet Dean Blumberg and to thank him personally for all that he gave to our law school community,” Dean Eboni S. Nelson says. “We are forever indebted to him for his transformational leadership of the law school.”