After smooth confirmation hearings, Justice Amy Coney Barrett has broken the ivy ceiling at the Supreme Court of the United States.
All of the eight other justices on the court have Ivy League law school degrees on their walls, but Barrett’s is from Notre Dame, the current capital of conservative Catholic academia, where she also served as a professor before being tapped for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals by President Donald Trump.
The White House touted Barrett’s Notre Dame pedigree in appointing her, but it also bragged about her undergraduate alma mater, Rhodes College, with a verbal faux pas few people likely caught.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called Barrett “a Rhodes scholar,” which was inaccurate, as that moniker applies to a select group of students chosen for post-graduate study at England’s Oxford University.
But Barrett’s undergraduate connection bears more examination.
A tiny college of about 1,200 people when she attended in the early 1990s, the liberal arts school in midtown Memphis has turned out to be a cradle of sorts for today’s political leaders.
For a school that size and of that little renown, merely producing a single Supreme Court justice would be notable, which it did with Justice Abe Fortas, who graduated when it was called Southwestern at Memphis in 1930 and appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1965, resigning just four years later amid a scandal.
By reference, only the undergraduate programs of Stanford, Princeton, and Cornell have produced women who’ve sat on the Supreme Court.
But Amy Coney was not the only up-and-comer roaming the quads of Rhodes College. Amber Khan, the current and first ever Muslim chairman of the Interfaith Alliance, was one class ahead of Barrett.
Before Barrett’s rise to Trump’s shortlist, the most famous Rhodes alumnus in politics was Chris Cox, a member of the class of 1992, who was CEO of the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action until 2019 and earned a prime-time speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in 2016.
The CEO of Planned Parenthood in Tennessee and North Mississippi, Ashley Brian Coffield, a former Clinton administration official, was two classes ahead of Barrett. She ran the political campaign against Tennessee’s anti-abortion constitutional amendment in 2014, and her Rhodes class of 1992 peer, Republican ad maker Brad Todd, was the lead strategist for the other side.
Todd, with whom I co-wrote a book about the conservative populist coalition that formed during the 2016 presidential election cycle, is best known for making the ads that supported the defeat of five Senate Democratic incumbents.
In Coney’s class, and in the same English department where she starred, was Matt Hardin, president of the Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association. There was also Coney classmate Robyn Thiemann, chief of staff of law enforcement at the Department of Justice, as well as Liz Cotham, class of ’92, the first of that wave of bright young people to hit it big as then-Vice President Al Gore’s scheduler at the White House.
So, what was Rhodes College doing right in the late 1980s and early 1990s?
Wendy Talent Rotter said attracting young, smart people who came from different backgrounds and worldviews was the college’s precise aim at that time.
“That was a stated value of the college and Rhodes from 1983 to 1987, it shaped who I am, and I admit, shaped all of us, preparing us with academic rigor, with the express purpose of broadening our worldview,” said the 1987 Rhodes graduate. “The purpose of the Rhodes experience was to prepare us to be world citizens, to think critically, to respect and have open dialogue with people of different worldviews, backgrounds, and cultural perspectives. We have a lot to learn from each other. We did then. We grew up together, and moreover, Rhodes ingrained in us this responsibility to serve.”
Rotter, who began her post-Rhodes career in nonprofit fundraising, specifically major gift fundraising for Rhodes, now owns one of the largest companies in the southeastern United States providing home care for the elderly.
When magazines began ranking colleges in the 1980s, Rhodes sought to get itself reclassified from consideration as a “regional liberal arts college” to a “national liberal arts college”—and its means to do so was a broad, merit-based scholarship program designed to lure the South’s best and brightest to Memphis instead of better-known universities in the region, such as Vanderbilt and Duke. The private college changed its name in 1984 to escape the preconceived notion that it might be a state school serving a mere region of a state.
Enough teenagers like Barrett, who grew up in the suburbs of New Orleans, took the bait to raise Rhodes’ academic admissions profile, and the school is now routinely listed among the 50 or so best national liberal arts colleges in the country.
But some who knew Barrett and her peers think it was the mixing of diverse talents and a commitment to rise that created an environment where high achievers could take off.
Rotter said she has the greatest respect for Barrett’s accomplishments: “We may not agree on every single political issue, but she absolutely has the qualifications to serve the highest court in the land and to serve our country. We have a lot to learn from each other.”
That, she said, is what Rhodes fostered, and that is what Barrett will carry on.