Belmont University College of Law’s Dean Alberto Gonzales came to Nashville with quite the story behind him, and if there ever was a man too qualified for the job, it just may be him.
He comes from a humble family in Texas; he enlisted in the United States Air Force, studied and practiced law, served as supreme court justice of Texas and worked his way to the White House as attorney general under the George W. Bush administration.
His calm demeanor never leaves him in stressful situations, and his introverted personality is something he believes helped the relationship he had with Bush.
The two got along very well, he said.
“He is much more outgoing and more excitable, so we connected very well,” Gonzales said.
His early days in the White House were not all work and no play. On slow afternoons, he would play horseshoes, teaming up with the president’s brother, Marvin, in hopes of beating Bush and then Chief of Staff Andrew Card.
“We worked hard, but it was a lot of fun,” Gonzales said.
However, after 9/11, Gonzales said, the world in the White House changed.
“I never saw anybody who was scared. It was our job. It was our job to protect the country. That is what the president expected,” he said.
Gonzales worked for a presidential administration whose popularity waned due to policies concerning water boarding, Guantanamo Bay and the hot-button issue of the firings of several United States attorneys.
Whether the grounds for the dismissals of these attorney were solid or based in political motives became the topic of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007. Gonzales, as calm as he is, said he needed strength from his faith to keep him going through those hearings.
“I remember thinking to myself ‘Why God, why do I have to go through this?’” he said.
After the Senate Judiciary hearing and several votes for a no-confidence resolution, Gonzales lost respect from not only many Democrats, but some from his own party as well. His time as attorney general dwindled quickly.
He was worn out and knew it was time to go, he said.
“I believe I was treated unfairly, but a lot of people are treated unfairly in Washington. If you go to Washington to be treated fairly, you’re in for a rude awakening,” Gonzales said.
Given his ending, he could think back on his service with anger and frustration, but he does not.
“In hindsight, I can look back and say I wish we’d done things differently, but given the circumstances and time we had to make decisions, I know we did our best, and I am proud of my service,” Gonzales said.
After Washington, he moved back home and worked at Texas Tech University. After a good amount of healing time, he started looking at what would be his next challenge. He found it in Nashville.
He was not even aware Belmont University had a law school until his son, Graham Gonzales, became interested in the school for its undergraduate religion and music programs.
When the job offer came to teach at Belmont University College of Law in 2012, he accepted.
For a man with such an impressive résumé, the guy doesn’t seem so intimidating. He’s an avid Star Wars fan, plays golf, enjoys Southern cooking at Monell’s Family Restaurant, and loses his keys just like everyone else.
He enjoys living in Nashville. The only complaint the Texas-native has of Nashville is the Mexican food it has to offer.
“We’ll have to work on that,” he said.
After two short years of teaching, Gonzales was named dean, and now two of his sons as well as his wife take classes here.
“At any time, there are at least three Gonzales’s on campus,” he said.
The perks of being dean of a law school aren’t too shabby. Gonzales’s office sits in the spacious dean’s suite on the second floor of the building with a perfect view of Belmont’s newest fountain.
Some find it odd for a man of such standing to decide to work at a newly-founded law school.
The adventure of building something from the ground floor is something he says he enjoys.
“There are very few if any people that can talk about the experiences I’ve had as a judge, attorney general, a White House counsel. So I think it’s an enrichment component that I bring to the table for our students here at Belmont,” Gonzales said.
He teaches First Amendment Law, National Security Law, Constitutional Law and Separation of Powers.
“We are training leaders, quite possibly the leaders of this country,” he said.
Aside from producing the next generation’s lawyers, he hopes to instill the value of service to the community over the value of money.
He currently works with Tennessee’s Governor Bill Haslam as a member of the Governor’s Commission for Judicial Appointments, and in the past has been part of the Governor’s Management Fellowship Program.
Although he feels as though his service to the United States is extensive, when it comes to going back into politics, there’s always a possibility.
“Never say never,” he said.
For now, he is happy with his work at Belmont.
Third-year juris doctor candidate Sean Alexander has taken three of Gonzales’s classes and remembered seeing Gonzales on T.V. and knew he was somewhat of a controversial figure.
Once he got to know him as a professor, he really enjoyed his classes, National Security Law in particular, he said.
Gonzales’ experience with the subject matter made the already hot-button issue that much more interesting.
“He has a high degree of first-hand knowledge being in the White House during 9/11,” Alexander said.
Having this kind of background, Gonzales can make students nervous, but he worked very hard to put any nerves Alexander may have had at ease.
He was pretty open about questions from students about his service as attorney general in the White House, Alexander said.
“If he could answer, he would. If not, he’d tell me he couldn’t,” Alexander said.
Former student Jaz Boon, a law clerk in the Tennessee Court of Appeals only vaguely remembers Gonzales as attorney general.
However, Gonzales made quite the impression on him after he took two of his courses: First Amendment Law and Separation of Powers.
Gonzales’s teaching style is different than many law professors, Boon said.
A two-hour class centered around a court case can lose its excitement, but his classes encourage student-directed conversations where “we could offer our thoughts as opposed to just what the case said,” Boon said.
Boon learned a great deal from the content of the courses, but one thing he took away from having him as a professor is the importance of forgiveness, even to politicians.
“You realize the decisions he had to make, whether you agree with them or not, were not easy decisions,” Boon said.
That’s not to say everyone was as understanding as Boon in the beginning. It wasn’t all warm welcomes for Gonzales right out of the gate.
During first spring semester Gonzales taught, there was a protest against him. He came to class and noticed it was unusually full; not all were his students. As he began his discussion, people started standing up in protest of his being there.
“I mean, that was an amateur protest compared to other protests I’ve been subject to, so it wasn’t that big of a deal,” Gonzales said.
One thing he liked about the incident was his students also stood, in protest against the agitators, defending their professor.
“When he first started there, there were people who were a little anti, but I think a lot of people, once they got to know him and interacted with him, liked him a whole lot,” Boon said. “I think any kind of high-profile hire like this is going to look great. People are going to be upset; people are going to be happy and it’s how things are.”
Law student Victoria Gentry took Constitutional Law with Gonzales and hopes to take National Security Law next spring.
“If you’re going to learn about national security, he’d be the person to learn it from,” Gentry said.
Outside the classroom, he has a great sense of humor, a little dry, she said. But during a class in a professional environment, he is pretty serious.
“He asks good questions, and he is willing to call people out if he predicts they’ll have a certain opinion,” Gentry said.
He is also very open in class to questions from students.
Gentry has seen him answer questions from his role in Guantanamo Bay to the Sept. 11 attacks.
The best way to break through the blank, unreadable face Gonzales sometimes gives, is to get to know him outside the classroom, she said.
It won’t take long to learn he is a baseball fan and kind of a Star Wars geek.
It is undeniable Gonzales has a past, one that does not set well with everyone. It is also undeniable the former attorney general has a future here with many praises of his passion for education coming from within Belmont College of Law.
Article written by Alexandria Hurst.