Professor Errol Meidinger, a mainstay of the UB School of Law faculty since 1982, has been named a SUNY Distinguished Professor – the State University of New York’s highest faculty rank.
The honor recognizes “individuals who have achieved national and/or international prominence and a distinguished reputation within their chosen field.” Selection criteria include the honoree’s impact on his field of study, typically through research, and work that essentially raises the bar for his academic colleagues.
Only 1,130 SUNY faculty members have been promoted to the distinguished ranks since the program was established in 1963. This year’s appointments came at a SUNY’s trustees meeting on Nov. 15.
“Dr. Meidinger has catalyzed a group of scholars worldwide to transform our understanding of the relationships among and between citizens, institutions and the environment, and to expand strategies for meeting critical environmental challenges,” the university system said in its announcement. “His work has influenced not only this area of study but also the practice of policy, both nationally and internationally.”
For Meidinger, the designation is the latest in a series. He holds the Margaret W. Wong Professorship at the School of Law, and also directs the Baldy Center for Law & Social Policy, the school’s signature interdisciplinary research institute. Previously, he was the founding director of the UB Environment & Society Institute, and he served as the School of Law’s first vice dean for research and faculty development from 2000-2010.
A summa cum laude graduate of the University of North Dakota, Meidinger holds master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology from Northwestern University and a J.D. from its law school.
Professor Errol Meidinger holds the Margaret W. Wong Professorship at the School of Law, and also directs the Baldy Center for Law & Social Policy, the school’s signature interdisciplinary research institute. Previously, he was the founding director of the UB Environment & Society Institute, and he served as the School of Law’s first vice dean for research and faculty development from 2000-2010.
At UB School of Law, Meidinger teaches in the areas of international environmental law, international business transactions, property, and sociolegal research. Beyond his interest in environmental law and regulation, he has studied and written about the forest and fisheries trade, government/non-government interactions in emerging global governance institutions, mega-regional trade agreements, governance through corporate supply chains, and the changing role of business in human rights protection.
In addition to his law school teaching, Meidinger has served as an adjunct professor of sociology at UB since 1995, and as an Honorary Professor of environment and natural resources at the University of Freiburg, Germany, since 2000.
Meidinger is the co-editor of three books on environmental law, including the forthcoming The Big Thaw: Policy, Governance and Climate Change in the Circumpolar North (SUNY Press) with UB colleagues Ezra Zubrow and Kim Diana Connolly. He has collaborated on four other books and authored or co-authored more than 40 journal articles and book chapters.
Congratulations on being named a SUNY Distinguished Professor. Does the designation feel like the capstone to your academic career?
It’s already a great privilege to be a professor, and I was pleasantly surprised to be nominated. It’s a really nice recognition of my labor in the vineyard over the years.
You have a Ph.D. in sociology. How has that influenced the scope of your research?
Sociology is about trying to find patterns, and it raises the question, if something doesn’t quite fit the conventional pattern, is that simply an anomaly or does it indicate that there’s something else going on – a different pattern? Sociology helps me keep an eye out for possible new institutional patterns. Buffalo has a long tradition of encouraging scholarship that asks, what are the patterns of the legal system, and can we draw on fresh perspectives to understand them better? Sociology helps with that.
Much of your research has been concerned with the rise of non-state governance institutions. Can you explain what they are and why they’re significant?
There’s a school of thought called legal pluralism that says, just because government says it’s the only one that makes, adjudicates and enforces rules, that doesn’t mean that’s all there is. So early on I asked, who else enforces rules? An initial project I did with Barry Boyer looked at private enforcement of environmental laws. It turned out that private enforcers were very important to the effectiveness of the system.
Non-governmental entities can also make and adjudicate rules. A major example emerged in the 1990s when the international legal system was failing to respond adequately to what was then called the tropical forest crisis. Tropical rainforests were being rapidly destroyed, in considerable part to feed North American and European markets. A group of nongovernmental actors created the Forest Stewardship Council, which developed its own rules for sustainable forest management, adjudicated compliance, and used market leverage such as picketing and brand threats, rather than government sanctions, to force improved behavior by companies such as Home Depot. It had a considerable effect on forest management practices and eventually on government regulation – although it’s important to note that forest destruction has not been stopped, only slowed somewhat.
Much of your research has been in environmental law and regulatory systems directed toward environmental issues. What’s your sense of how committed corporations are to environmental stewardship at this point in history?
There’s huge variation. Some companies have put policies in place to deal with sustainability issues; there are many, especially global companies, that are behaving quite differently than they did previously. But there are a great many others that aren’t. Businesses are under constant pressure to cut costs, and environmental protections often seem like easy ones to cut – although the reality is that the costs are simply borne by others and by nature. For the system to work for our overall benefit, businesses need to believe that short term environmental cheating will not add to their viability. That requires a huge effort to change corporate thinking and behavior – part of which can be in things like the brand threats I mentioned a minute ago. But there is only so much energy in civil society for checking what companies are doing, picketing or boycotting them, and so on. Traditional legal systems, trade laws, and the like also need to do much more. Ultimately, while a discernible shift in business culture may be underway, we have a huge distance to go to make corporations in general environmentally responsible.
Most recently you’ve gotten interested in the role of business in ensuring human rights. Can you tell us what that entails?
The general idea is to get businesses to treat their workers and communities properly, and to use their economic power to get their partners to do the same. The problems involved depend on the particular context. Issues range from wage theft – working way beyond the allowable hours and not being paid enough – to not being allowed to organize, to being punished if you express yourself, to living in unacceptable conditions. Very often they involve dangerous working conditions, such as exposure to dangerous chemicals and lack of protections in the equipment. Child labor is another big problem. As with environmental protection, the challenge is to make correcting these conditions worth it to businesses.
As director of the Baldy Center, you often work to get great minds in a room together and cross-pollinate. I bet you’ve seen amazing ideas and collaborations come out of that process.
I have, but they take many different forms and often a lot of time to be realized. The Baldy Center has a broad mission: to advance interdisciplinary research on law, legal institutions and social policy. So what it achieves at any given time varies according to the interests and projects of the affiliated faculty. A modest Baldy research grant could be the key to opening up a new way of understanding an important problem, or getting an external grant that will. A Baldy conference could do the same. But it generally takes a while. You often can’t predict what’s going to come out of any given initiative. But you can see that the Center leavens the overall quality of socio-legal work at the University, and that is gratifying.