Changing Lives in Profound Ways

Headshot of Barbara Howe.

Judge Barbara Howe, JD '80, former professor of law and sociology, established a scholarship in honor of her mother.

By Judson Mead

Hon. Barbara Howe (Ret.), former New York State Surrogate Judge for Erie County, has a deep and continuing connection with UB that began when she joined the faculty of the Department of Sociology as an assistant professor in 1974, fresh from her doctoral study at Cornell.Today she sits on the UB Law School Dean’s Advisory Council.

During the intervening 46 years, Judge Howe achieved tenure, served as an associate dean and attended UB law school; she gave up her tenure in sociology when she was elected to Buffalo City Court in 1987, but continued as adjunct faculty in sociology until2019 and law until 2015. She was elected to the New York State Supreme Court in 1991 and as New York State Surrogate Judge for Erie County in 2003, a position she held until her retirement in 2017.

Judge Howe has endowed an annual award for the best graduate student research paper in the Department of Sociology. We asked her about giving to UB.

You wrote your PhD dissertation on “The emergence of the philanthropic foundation as an American social institution, 1900-1920.” What brought you to that topic?

As an undergraduate I always had three interests: history, sociology and law. My dissertation combined all three. It had been theorized by so-called critical sociologists that the creation of philanthropic foundations based on the great fortunes amassed at the beginning of the 20th century—like those of the Rockefellers and the Carnegies—was motivated primarily by the desire for public approval and in reaction to proposed changes to the tax code. The thesis I explored was that benevolence also played a significant role, and I found it did. 

Philanthropy is more than a pure academic interest for you. How did you come to endow the Nathalie Devine Howe Award in your mother’s name to recognize outstanding research by UB sociology graduate students?

I wanted to honor my mother in a way that would keep her name and memory alive. Now I reap the benefit each year of seeing my gift encourage high-quality research in the department I’m connected with. I’m extremely proud to see students who win the NDH award present their papers at academic conferences, which helps them become professional sociologists.

And I like to remember that my mother always felt sorry for graduate students in sociology because she thought we were destined to be poor!

You taught courses at UB in both the Sociology Department and the Law School during most of your years on the bench. What motivates you to teach?

I’m obsessed with the importance of education, particularly higher education. In addition to that, I get great joy from mentoring young people, starting as young as when they begin to formulate academic interests. I’ve mentored in what I consider a significant way hundreds of students. I’d like to think I’ve changed some lives in profound ways through mentoring.=

I have a talk I’ve given many times, especially to young people, on the lifetime value of a quality education. I say that a person should make any sacrifice necessary to get as much education as possible because no one can take that away. It’s a lifelong asset.

You were  tenured professor of sociology. How did you decide to change careers?

Law had always been an interest. In the late 1970s, when I started studying law at UB, the law school was very academically oriented—the dean was a sociologist, in fact—so it wasn’t a reach as a way of thinking. I already understood the “nesting” of law and sociology.

I used a sabbatical semester away from teaching in 1981 to work as a public defender. I found myself working with people who have the kinds of issues that sociologists think about, especially poverty. In 1984 I got totally immersed in Buffalo politics. That led to my run for and win a Buffalo city court judgeship. I always believed that being a judge is a privilege to be re-earned every day and I got to do that for 30 years. I’ve been very fortunate.

You were an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut and a graduate student at Cornell. What do you tell people who might think UB doesn’t need private support because it is a public university?

I think it is at least as important to support public education with philanthropic giving as it is private education—to support making quality education available to everyone. Of the very best colleges and universities in this country, some are public, some private. But public education can be subject to the vagaries of political leadership and funding, so I believe strongly that we need to support public education with individual gifts. I’m hardcore about that. 

You have been part of the UB community for 46 years—as a tenured faculty member, as an associate dean, as a law student, as a friend and benefactor and honored alumna. In your view, how is UB doing today?

I think UB is doing phenomenally! President Tripathi and Law Dean Abramovsky are extraordinary. I would have said that if you’d asked before the pandemic began. But I can say it now even more passionately because of the way UB has responded to the situation. UB turned on a dime to recast education for online delivery and also to respond to new racial justice challenges. UB took its resources and recrafted them to respond in myriad ways, even including opportunities for alumni. So, again, UB is doing phenomenally!