June 17, 2016

Learning from the Master

UMass alumnus Kenneth Feinberg challenges undergraduates

Kenneth Feinberg ’67, ’02H often makes news, most recently as special master to oversee a new fund to compensate victims of state-sponsored terrorism. So what’s it like taking a course at UMass with a teacher nationally renowned for his fairness and wisdom? When that course is “Historical Responses to Unique Catastrophes,” it's an intellectually invigorating experience.

“He is incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable. I can’t imagine anyone else teaching this course,” says Nella Rasic ’16.

Feinberg has been called “The Master of Disaster” for his expert administration of the grim aftermath of some of the most costly tragedies of the last three decades. He was “special master” of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. He mediated the distribution of compensation from Virginia Tech’s Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund, from BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, and from the Boston Marathon tragedy. He’s currently in charge of Volkswagen’s program to address claims related to cheating on emissions data.

Feinberg is also a staunch supporter of UMass, having donated his personal and professional papers and his opera music collection to the UMass Libraries and acting as cochair of the UMass Rising fundraising campaign. In the spring semester, he taught his first UMass class in 15 years, with some sessions conducted via video link and other sessions in-person on campus.

When Feinberg leads a discussion, his formidable intellect is obvious. He leans forward and listens intently to students, taking notes. He summarizes students’ arguments quickly and precisely, punctuating his remarks with a wagging finger.

Feinberg modulates his Boston-accented voice dramatically, calling on students by name. “Scott is making a pretty important HISTORICAL point,” he says. “When and under what CIRCUMSTANCES does a government compensate for tragedy? We don’t want big government changing the CHARACTER of the American people. Julian, you are in FINE FORM today.”

“He will go right to the worst part of your argument,” says Julian Del Prado ’16. “But it’s not intimidating; it’s challenging.”

“Mr. Feinberg teaches the class as he would one of his law school classes at Harvard,” says Joye Bowman, professor and chair of the department of history. “He challenges the students to do their best work. He establishes an esprit de corps in the class and students became a community. I feel confident that it is an experience that the students will remember as they go out into the world.