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As soon as Donald Trump won the election, students at the University of Washington School of Law began querying their instructors. They wanted to know what his presidency could mean and how the law can both empower and rein in the president-elect as he moves to implement his political agenda.
Sensing an opportunity to engage students by harnessing current events, professors Sanne Knudsen and Kathryn Watts quickly began designing a new course focused on the role of the presidency and its limitations—a class that delves into hot topics including health care, climate change and immigration.
“Frankly, it’s very exciting to teach when students are at the height of their level of engagement,” Knudsen said.
The upper-level course, called Executive Power and Its Limits, is being offered next semester. Demand has already exceeded available seats—a sign that law students are hungry to better understand the intersection of the law and the White House amid Trump’s move to Washington.
Both Knudsen and Watts teach administrative law, and Watts’ scholarship centers on presidential powers, so they already know the subject well. The wide range of policy initiatives they plan to delve into created an opportunity to tap the expertise of many of their colleagues on the law faculty. The standard administrative law course doesn’t offer enough time for the deep examination of presidential power that their students were asking for, the professors said.
The first three weeks of the course will cover the basics of executive power, and how the president interacts with the legislative and judicial branches, Watts said. After that, the class will look at specific topics to dissect Obama’s moves as well as potential actions by Trump. Knudsen and Watts anticipate some of these discussions will follow real-time policy decisions that students will be reading about in the media.
“We’ll take an international look at the Paris Agreement,” Watts said, referencing the United Nations’ 2016 climate-change plan. “We’re likely to look at Department of Labor rules that came down during the Obama administration.”
Experts credit Obama with expanding the scope of executive power during his eight years in office, which unfolded amid congressional gridlock.
Sanne said attention on presidential power isn’t limited to the law campus. Even her neighbors and friends have expressed an interest in knowing more when she has mentioned the course.
“It’s amazing how many people outside the academic community are also interested in understanding at deeper level the basics of civic power,” Knudsen said. “It’s not surprising to me at all that our students are interested in this, because the broader community is engaged right now.”
Watts said she hopes to be able to offer the class during each presidential transition year, when executive power is in the spotlight. Similar courses may be on the way. At least one other law school has contacted the professors in search of more information.