Gerry Stegmaier is a partner in an international law firm, and a senior research fellow and practitioner in residence at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. Gerry says, “I spend most of my day doing the same types of things I was doing in the late 1990s when I was a graduate student at Catholic University. I help people solve complex problems at the intersections of information, law and technology. Each of these systems can be very arcane and complex and often they (or the people within them) have a difficult time understanding and relating to one another. Each interaction begins in more or less the same way, which is to understand from the people involved what they are trying to accomplish, and then to help them find a way to do that in a way that is ethically, legally and financially sound.
“Because much of my work involves emerging issues relating to privacy, the law is often unclear. We have a saying: ‘follow the golden rule, do what you say and say what you do.’ It’s harder than you think. Many businesses have only a loose understanding of how they collect, use and share information. And there are many things that may be technically or defensibly legal that may make little to no business or ethical sense. I enjoy helping people sort these things out and doing it in such a way that the upsides to them and to society can be very large. Many of the organizations I work with have become household names that each of us uses every single day. When there is an edge case, a hard decision to be made, I’m often asked to weigh in. I find these situations to be some of the most rewarding – getting to the best answer available typically aligns with the answer to a simple question: ‘is it something you’d feel proud of if you had to explain it to your grandmother?’”
While Gerry was working on his MA in Catholic University’s Department of History, he was also the director of development at the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “Our President was a great mentor and had started several technology companies. We were a lab experiment for new technologies, so we had one of the earlier computer networks for a small business and were one of the first non-profits I’m aware of that relied on technology to accomplish its mission. We operated a program that would help veterans and children of veterans who were killed or missing during the Vietnam War locate one another. It was based on dBase IV. Today you might think of it in some respects as a combination of Wikipedia, Google, Facebook and Craigslist. And, like many search engines in the early days, it was powered behind the scenes by real people: helping people find people with whom they shared a special connection, someone on the Wall in Washington, D.C.”
One course Gerry singles out as “tremendously helpful, almost by accident” during his time in Catholic University’s History Department was History 602, an innovation in the department’s graduate program in the 1990s that taught statistics, databases and computer applications for historical research, anticipating what academia now calls “digital humanities”. Gerry recalls, “I came to study intellectual history. I was a committed Americanist, fascinated with the ideas of the republic. I also had little interest in social history at the time or anything that even loosely looked math-based or empiricist. But I prided myself on an open mind and the curricula in the history program challenged me aggressively. Like many historians I would read right past graphs, tables and charts and had no idea what a t-test was or the differences between correlation and causation.
“In that class we coded our datasets by hand, and I think we were doing some of the first work in the country in history with data visualization. I remember sitting in the grad student lounge one day looking at a map that plotted relationships between religious holidays and the counter-reformation gleaned from old parish records or something similar. Looking at the data on the map, I thought, ‘Wow, we could use these same techniques to figure out where to put a Walmart.’
“Dr. Poos taught me to ask the question, ‘what does the data tell us?’, and then to try and operate in a Tabula Rasa way to really listen to it. Bringing data-driven analysis to decision-making is something that remains very uncomfortable for many organizations and leaders. Often decision-making is alleged to be based on data but ultimately it is rooted in conjecture and emotion at best. Catholic University taught me how to be a natural skeptic and be willing to ask questions—even of myself—about why we think the way we do.”
Another experience during his time in the History Department that Gerry found particularly influential was his work with Professor Maxwell Bloomfield (1931-2017, who taught both law and history at Catholic University). “Max was incredibly welcoming, and I realized I had little exposure to twentieth-century American history. Max encouraged me to do research on a case called Wickard v. Filburn. The case held loosely that it is and was okay for the federal government to regulate the production of wheat on small farms when the farmer never actually sold any of the wheat in interstate commerce, but rather fed the wheat to the pigs. I got a shelf at the Library of Congress, spent months in the personal papers of the Supreme Court Justices and dove as deeply as my limited understanding of economics would allow to understand how and why the Court would determine that feeding wheat you grew on your own farm to your own pigs would be interstate commerce. My work with Max caused me to think very deeply about the history of federalism and its constitutional underpinnings.”
During Gerry’s time as a graduate student in history at Catholic University, the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial became lead plaintiffs in a First Amendment challenge to a National Park Service regulation that would ban the sale of t-shirts on the National Mall. “While we prevailed at the district court and enjoined the enforcement of the regulation because we believed that t-shirts were in fact expressive material entitled to the same level of protection as books, pamphlets and pins, ultimately the federal appeals court in D.C. disagreed. My work on this litigation and conversations about it with Max lead me to decide to leave graduate school to become a lawyer. I told Max, ‘while I can write all I want, and teach and shape future lawyers, at the end of the day, unless I become a lawyer I can never stand in front of the bar and answer the judge’s questions.’ Then, as now, my DNA believed that we could do better and that where we could, we must. So, two weeks before I started at George Mason’s law school, I sat for my MA comps.”
Gerry sees the direct connections between graduate study in history and his career. “I often joke that I became a lawyer because I was bad with numbers, would faint at the sight of blood, but people said I was a good talker. I had been a national champion debater in college. I believed when I arrived at Catholic University that I knew how to argue. While at Catholic University, I learned how to argue using information, especially information derived from data, using techniques and disciplines that were either brand new, or brand new to me. The History Department took my interest in how technology and information could be applied to problem-solving and amplified it through an intensive, 18-month distillation process, and it did so at just the right time: the dawn of the Internet Age.”
Gerry sums up: “I have had the good fortune to work on Alexa before she had a name, to shiver after being on an email with Steve Jobs, to work on the initial financing of Facebook, and to have memories that remind me of scenes from The Social Network. Working with dreamers to help them become doers has become a passion. Helping figure out how we can collect and use information responsibly to make the world a better place in ways that are practical and actionable every day is a surprise gift from Catholic University that I never expected.”