Since retiring at the end of June, LSU Law Chancellor Emeritus John Costonis has finished up what may be his final two legal papers—one of which will be published by Louisiana Law Review in the coming months—and embraced a much less hectic schedule than he used to keep.
“Some people really struggle with retirement, but honest to god, I don’t mind having some free time for a change,” says the 82-year-old Boston native who plans to spend his retirement in Baton Rouge, which he has called home since becoming LSU Law chancellor in 1998. “I’m not eager to be running off to some other place at my age. We have so many friends here, and like my wife says: If you’re not having fun here, then there’s something wrong with you.”
Along with spending time with family and friends, Costonis has been turning his attention in recent months to some of his greatest interests: philosophy, classical music and reading the classics in foreign languages.
“I really want to learn Latin so I can read ‘The Iliad’ in it. I love the classics and I love philosophy,” says Costonis, who already speaks five languages and earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy at Harvard in 1959. “I also love classical music and I play the cello, so I’ll be developing those interests and doing a lot of reading.”
The path that brought Costonis to LSU Law was full of interesting twists and turns. He served in the U.S. Army as a counterintelligence officer before attending graduate school in Italy to continue his studies in philosophy. After earning his law degree from Columbia Law School in 1965, he went on to teach at University of Pennsylvania Law School; University of Illinois; University of California, Berkeley; and New York University Law School, before heading to Nashville to become dean of Vanderbilt University Law School.
Costonis was on the tail end of a two-year sabbatical in early 1998, after serving as Vanderbilt dean for 11 years, when a new opportunity—and challenge—arose. He had spent one year helping found the Quantum Foundation in Florida before another as a visiting environmental research professor at University of Colorado Law School, and was contemplating his next move.
“I probably would have returned to Vandy, but then I got the call from LSU Law about the chancellor position,” he says. “There were a few things about it that really interested me. First, the nature of the challenge was enormous. LSU Law had been going through some lean years. But there was also a commitment here to make a major, major investment in the law school.”
Most importantly, the unique administrative structure of LSU Law at the time—one with a chancellor as opposed to a dean—meant Costonis would have greater ability to bring the envisioned transformation of the school to fruition. He knew this because one of his earliest mentors was Bill Hawkland, whom he taught alongside at the University of Illinois before Hawkland moved to Baton Rouge to become LSU Law’s first full chancellor from 1979 to 1989.
“Vanderbilt was very comfortable, lovely and rich, but the structure was also constraining. Basically, the deans were given guidelines from the provost, and we had no direct access to the boards or the president,” Costonis says. “As a chancellor who would work directly with the president, along with the LSU board and state government, I felt it would be possible to do an awful lot of things here that I wouldn’t have been able to do so easily at Vanderbilt—and it was.”
In his roughly nine years as chancellor, Costonis oversaw several major transformations and upgrades at LSU Law, including a roughly $20 million renovation of the LSU Law Center, the creation of new programs and a major update of the civil law curriculum.
Costonis says securing raises for faculty members, working to increase alumni donations, boosting student recruitment efforts and investing in the LSU Law Library are also among his proudest achievements as chancellor.
“I think I can take some credit for helping the law school build on what was rich and special about it before my time there,” he says. “The negative reputation from the hard times, that became a burden for recruiting and getting the alumni on our side—especially far enough on our side that they’d give money—but we were able to turn that around. It took a lot of hard work by a lot of people, but we did some great things at the law school that I’m very proud of.”
In 2007, Costonis became Chancellor Emeritus and Judge Albert Tate and Rosemary Neal Hawkland Professor of Law in 2007. He taught courses in environmental law, historic preservation, land use law, law of the Louisiana coast, property, federal public land, and resources law until his retirement on June 30.
Among the many accolades and awards he has received throughout his career, Costonis was presented the H.M. “Hub” Cotton Award for Faculty Excellence in 2018. The award recognizes an LSU faculty member with a distinguished record of teaching, research, administration, public service or any other outstanding contributions to the university.
“He has contributed mightily in every phase of the academic venture, with a record of research and scholarship and a passion for teaching in which he challenges his students with cutting-edge instruction of current and complicated legal issues,” LSU Law Dean Tom Galligan said in his nomination letter. “Chancellor Costonis’ career has been an exemplary one, and one that stands as a model for aspiring young legal scholars and teachers.”
Likewise, Costonis praises the job Galligan is doing as dean and says he’s proud that the momentum that was built during his time as head of the law school continues to this very day.
“Some of the things the law school is doing now, especially in terms of raising money, would have been unthinkable in 1998,” he says. “The alumni support and the school’s reputation are as strong as they’ve ever been. I’m excited about the success of the students, and I’m very impressed with the way LSU Law has retained its commitment to Louisiana while also making strides in Texas and Alabama.”