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Longtime Dean Fred Hart diversified UNM’s law school

Fred Hart and Joan Hart were married for more than 60 years and had eight children and 20 grandchildren. Fred Hart, a longtime dean and faculty member at UNM School of Law, died Sunday night at 91. He is credited with creating opportunities for women and people of color. Joan Hart died in 2019. (Courtesy of Maggie Hart Stebbins)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Fred Hart, an “unstoppable force” who dedicated his nearly 55-year career at the University of New Mexico School of Law to opening up opportunities for women and people of color, has died. He was 91.

Hart died at his Albuquerque home Sunday night from complications of multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer.

He served two stints as dean of the law school, from 1971 to 1979 and from 1985 to 1986. Hart is credited with changing the culture at the state’s only law school by emphasizing the recruitment of female and minority students and faculty members.

“He changed the law school in ways that opened it up to people who didn’t have the opportunity to come to law school. And that changed the nature of the practicing bar in New Mexico,” said UNM Regent Rob Schwartz. “You can’t solve the social problems of New Mexico without having Hispanic students and Native American students and a wide range of students from other parts of the state. It wasn’t just going to be the elites from Albuquerque who went to law school.”

Born in Flushing, Queens, in New York City, and a graduate of Georgetown University and Law School, Hart first arrived at UNM in 1966 for a visiting professorship with the intent of staying one year, said Maggie Hart Stebbins, one of Hart and Joan Hart’s eight children. The couple, who first met at a high school dance in New York City, was married for more than 60 years, from 1956 until Joan Hart’s death in 2019. They have 20 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren with a third on the way.

“He felt that there was a loss to society if people of color and women weren’t at the table contributing their experiences and expertise,” Hart Stebbins said. “He would often say, ‘We would probably have a cure for cancer … if there were more diversity in the conversation.’ And he felt the same way about the legal profession.”

Robert Desiderio, an emeritus professor and former dean at the UNM law school, said Hart built summer programs specifically geared toward Native American and Hispanic students to prepare them for law school.

In 1972, Hart hired the first female faculty member of the law school, Anne Bingaman, wife of former Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. The same year, Hart hired the law school’s first Hispanic professors: Cruz Reynoso, who went on to become a justice on the Supreme Court of California, and Leo Romero, a UNM law school professor emeritus and former dean.

” ‘Huge’ doesn’t even do enough to describe it,” Desiderio said of Hart’s impact.

Schwartz, a law school professor emeritus, said Hart faced pushback during his time as dean, as he tried to recruit students and faculty of different backgrounds, genders, ethnicities and political ideologies.

“He had an extremely strong personality. He would listen to those who were concerned about what he was doing. But when he made up his mind, he was an utterly unstoppable force,” Schwartz said. “I had my own arguments with him. There was a couple years when I was on faculty and he was dean that he didn’t talk to me. … But he knew his programs were important for this state.”

The Frederick M. Hart Wing, an extension of the law school, was built in 2002. The Frederick M. Hart Chair in Consumer and Clinical Law was created in 2010.

One of Hart’s specialties was commercial law. He wrote an eight-volume treatise, “Forms and Procedures Under the Uniform Commercial Code,” and a three-volume series, “Negotiable Instruments Under the Uniform Commercial Code.”

After retiring as a full-time faculty member, Hart remained at UNM as a professor emeritus. He taught his last class in the spring of 2020.

Outside of UNM, Hart Stebbins said, her father doted on his wife – “he loved my mother more than life itself,” she said – and remained a humble man, as evidenced by his “ordinary” wardrobe. He cheered for the San Francisco Giants baseball team, and his own softball team, a group of lawyers who called themselves The Bad Guys, Desiderio said.

Hart Stebbins, a former Bernalillo County commissioner, said she once confided to her father that a difficult part of her job as an elected official was public speaking. She said he had similar difficulties.

“He kind of said, ‘I know what you’re talking about. I have to prepare every single day,’ ” Hart Stebbins said. “Every class he taught, every lecture he gave, he prepared three or four hours a day. Even topics he had been teaching for 50 years.

“He was most proud of his work as an educator.”

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