Jealousy at Ivy League level: How a law professor views Tenth Commandment

Why We Wrote This

For Professor David Skeel, there’s an important distinction between the quest for excellence and the desire for stature. Part 11 in a series looking at the Ten Commandments through modern lives.

Sabina Louise Pierce/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
David Skeel, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, says he's “very careful about the lines” between the religious and the secular. But he's found that a Christian viewpoint has been welcomed at the school.

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David Skeel, a professor of corporations and bankruptcy, advises a Christian law student group at his institution, the University of Pennsylvania Law School. A longtime member of a Presbyterian church in Philadelphia, he talks with the students in the group about putting motivations to the test.

“The question I ask myself, and I encourage my students to ask themselves: ‘Would Christ recognize who I am becoming?’” he says.

Mr. Skeel tries to distinguish the passion for excellence from the quest for professional stature. “Am I working hard because I want something [my colleagues] have: Their publisher? Their agent? Their status?” he asks.

The professor spoke with the Monitor about the Tenth Commandment, which begins, “Thou shalt not covet.” The conversation was part of our series exploring how people of different faiths use the Ten Commandments’ ancient principles in their modern lives.

The job of scholars, Mr. Skeel says, is “to encourage one another” to give credit and honest feedback when due. “Spurring one another on,” he says, “is one of the joys of being a scholar, and isn’t coveting, in my view.”

Of all the things thou shalt not covet under the Tenth Commandment, thy brother’s bankruptcy theory may be the least of your temptations. But in the marketplace of ideas, the success of others – if not handled well – can get a scholar off his spiritual game, says David Skeel. Mr. Skeel, professor of corporations and bankruptcy at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, describes the moral stumbling blocks of life at the highest levels of a profession he’s inhabited for the past 30 years, and for which he trains the next generation.

Unbridled ambition can blunt the joy of the work, Mr. Skeel believes. He helps keep his own competitiveness in check by trying to distinguish the passion for excellence from the quest for professional stature.

“Spurring one another on – when excitement about another scholar’s work makes me want to do something exciting myself – is one of the joys of being a scholar, and isn’t coveting, in my view,” he explains. “And sometimes it even leads to writing something together! But the temptation to undercut another scholar, or even not to help them when the opportunity arises, is a temptation that comes from coveting what they have.”

The professor spoke about the Tenth Commandment – Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s (Exodus 20:17) – as part of the Monitor’s series exploring how people of different faiths use the Ten Commandments’ ancient principles in their modern lives.

When colleagues shine

Drawing the distinction between the quest for excellence and the desire for stature was harder early in his career, says Mr. Skeel, speaking in his comfortable street-level office in Silverman Hall. He’s flanked on one side by the Ivy League’s womb of selectivity and scholarship, on the other side by busy Philadelphia street life. “When one colleague developed a grand theory of bankruptcy, I felt like I had to develop a grand theory of bankruptcy,” he recalls. Now, when he reads something impressive, he usually takes it in stride. But not always. Sometimes the ambition wins, at least for a while. He recalls being unable to sleep after reading one paper not long ago: “What was I going to write that was comparable?”

The job of scholars, he says, is “to encourage one another” to give credit and honest feedback when due, even if it might elevate a colleague and reduce one’s own stature.

Mr. Skeel puts his motivations to the test and suggests that the students in the Christian law student group he advises do the same. “In a big-picture sense, the question I ask myself, and I encourage my students to ask themselves: ‘Would Christ recognize who I am becoming? Is this what a follower of Christ might look like?’” He continues, “Am I working hard because I want something [my colleagues] have: Their publisher? Their agent? Their status? Then that’s more problematic.”

In secular settings, the professor suggests to all students that they monitor their priorities: “When you start practicing law, you have to think about your moral compass: Do you recognize the person you’re becoming?”

Mr. Skeel, a longtime member of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, is married, with two grown sons and a new grandchild. He augments the big-picture reflection with a daily habit of “confession of sin” as part of his morning devotional time. He reads the Bible in order, from a text that omits the usual chapter and verse notations, making the story feel more vivid to him.

Scripture in the back of a van

It was the Bible that made a believer out of Mr. Skeel. Not raised in a religion, he grew frustrated as a literature major at the University of North Carolina because he didn’t understand the scriptural references he encountered at every turn. He began reading the Bible in the back of a van one summer during a cross-country road trip. “I was convinced it was true before I got through Genesis,” he says. The Scripture was so powerful to him, he recalls, “it revealed myself to myself.”

Back at school, a fraternity brother asked him at a party, “You don’t actually believe that stuff, do you?” Mr. Skeel responded, “I do believe it,” and from that moment, though his college student persona might have belied it, he was a man transformed.

Professionally, Mr. Skeel is “very careful about the lines” between the religious and the secular, but he’s never felt the need to hide his Christianity, and his faith is no secret at Penn Law. He assumed he’d get pushback some years ago when he proposed a course about Christianity and the law. He found, instead, that his viewpoint was welcomed at the law school. Among his many writings is a book about faith: “True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World.”

Robert Thrasher, a former student now practicing law in New York City, says Mr. Skeel is esteemed at the law school for his work and beloved for his engaging and generous personality. “One thing that was encouraging to me was the way in which he was able to excel in his industry as a scholar, and [at the same time] incorporate his faith into his leadership,” Mr. Thrasher says. “When you merge these two together, it makes quite an example of a Christian leader.”

Though he cautions against directly taking policy from Scripture, the principles of Mr. Skeel’s faith challenge his scholarship. He thinks about forgiveness of debt from both a literal and spiritual perspective. He sees in the Old Testament concept of jubilee (Leviticus 25) possible relevance to modern bankruptcy law. And he finds unavoidable questions, though not necessarily answers, in the numerous scriptural references to those who are poor.

Puerto Rico expertise

In 2016, President Barack Obama named Mr. Skeel to the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) board established that year by federal law to deal with the Puerto Rican debt crisis. “It was, by a wide margin, the biggest, single greatest privilege of my professional career,” he says. “I had been thinking and writing about Puerto Rico issues for 30 years. It was an extraordinary opportunity to use the ideas I usually think and write about to help solve the problem.”

The week of his appointment, his pastor happened to speak about the biblical Esther, and her cousin Mordecai’s famous challenge: “Maybe you have been put in this position for just such a moment as this,” he recalls, paraphrasing Esther 4:14. Listening, the new appointee thought, “Maybe that’s speaking to me.” In the three years since, the heady moment of appointment has passed, the task has become more complicated than anticipated, and the board is now seen as the “bad guys” on the island of Puerto Rico, with its very legitimacy now in the hands of the United States Supreme Court.

Still, Mr. Skeel is buoyed by the success of other such oversight boards, giving him hope that his will also ultimately succeed. Meanwhile, Esther’s own ultimate success, and the virtues of patience and hope that her story illuminates, remain with him. The professor, as is his wont, has a little reflection for his Christian law group students. This month’s talk, on his PROMESA experience, is titled “An Esther Moment?”

Part 1: The Commandments as a moral source code in modern life

Part 2: How does the First Commandment fit in today?

Part 3: ‘I have to have humility’: How Second Commandment helped man find freedom

Part 4: One woman embraces Third Commandment in feeding 1,600 at Thanksgiving

Part 5: ‘Remember the sabbath’: How one family lives the Fourth Commandment

Part 6:Growing up is hard’: How Fifth Commandment guided a child during divorce

Part 7: Is saying ‘I’d kill for those shoes’ OK? One woman and Sixth Commandment.

Part 8: Is chastity old-fashioned? An NFL veteran’s take on Seventh Commandment.

Part 9:Thou shalt not steal’: Even someone else’s joy, says one educator

Part 10: ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’: Ninth Commandment goes to Princeton

Part 11: Jealousy at Ivy League level: How a law professor views Tenth Commandment

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