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Alumni Q&A: Michael Scott, Clinical Professor of Law

There are policemen. There are lawyers. And then there is Michael Scott (BA’80, Behavioral Science & Law and Sociology), who is a bit of a hybrid.

Scott has been on the clinical faculty of the University of Wisconsin Law School since 2003 and teaches two courses: “The Role of Police in a Free Society” and “Special Problems in Policing.” He began his career as a Madison police officer in 1981 after graduating from the forerunner of the Legal Studies program, which until 2001 was known as Behavioral Science & Law.

His undergraduate education gave him a foundation for a 30-plus-year career in police work, administration and research. Scott has worked all over the country in both research and administration since graduating from Harvard Law School in 1987. He has also served as the president and director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing since 2002.

Scott recently took a break to reflect on his undergraduate experience in what would become the Center for Law, Society & Justice.

What originally drew you to the Behavioral Science & Law program?
My father, who was an English professor here at UW-Madison and who knew of my general interest in the police, mentioned to me that this new major was being established and that it might interest me. He was right. I can’t think of a better major for the work I’ve done.

Why have you continued to focus on police work even after obtaining your law degree?
While at UW-Madison, my interest in the police matured beyond its original adventure fantasy (although police work did offer enough of that, too) to a deeper academic and professional interest. I credit several of my professors for this, but especially Professor Emeritus Herman Goldstein at the UW Law School. He impressed on me just how important police are to a free society, and how challenging are the issues associated with policing free and open societies. I never seriously considered working in any field other than policing.

What is problem-oriented policing and why do you believe it’s so important?
Problem-oriented policing is a conceptual framework for how police should approach their work. It was developed over several decades by the criminal law faculty at the UW Law School, most especially by Professors Herman Goldstein and the late Frank Remington. It asserts that police work is inescapably complex and that it deals with a very wide range of social and behavioral problems. It goes on to assert that police need to focus on how they can improve their handling of these various problems, and that the best path to doing so is through applied social science research methods.

Looking back, what role did your undergraduate studies play in the rest of your career?
My undergraduate studies, particularly my coursework, internship, and thesis in the Behavioral Science & Law program, laid the foundation for everything I’ve done in my career. It provided me with valuable substantive knowledge about how the law and the legal system operates, valuable research and writing skills to better understand social problems and communicate those findings, and practical experiences to compare what I was learning in the classroom to what I was seeing and doing outside of it.

Be honest: How often do people make jokes about The Office with you?
Until that other Michael Scott left Dunder Mifflin last year, constantly, but not at all now that he’s gone. There’s a life lesson in that somewhere, but I’m not yet sure what it is. Depending on one’s taste, I’m left either to carry on or to restore that good name.