Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court William Rehnquist stared down at him from his high bench. Ted D. Ayres, only 34 years old, had carefully rehearsed his opening argument on behalf of the University of Missouri System. But but he wasn’t even a minute into it before the justices pounced, peppering him with questions. Now a judge on the highest court in the land expected an answer — immediately — to his pointed question.
That moment, in 1981, was when Ayres, JD ’72, was most grateful for what he hated about his Mizzou law school experience.
Ayres was a good student in college, but he was worried he was out of his depth when he came to MU’s School of Law. His classmates hailed from places such as West Point and Harvard. “My degree from Central Missouri State wilted in comparison,” says the 2016–17 volunteer president of the Mizzou Alumni Association.
Things only got worse when classes started. Ayres was most intimidated by Professor Ed Hunvald, an enthusiast of the question-as-teaching-tool Socratic method. Ayres always sat toward the back of the class and buried his head in his textbook to avoid the professor’s gaze. It didn’t work. “He’d call you out, expect you to dissect a court decision” on the spot, Ayres says. “It taught you to think on the fly. I didn’t realize at the time what it was doing for me. I hated it.”
Test of Skills
The training prepared Ayres for a one-year clerkship after graduation with the Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City, Missouri. Four years later he joined the UM System General Counsel office. He spent seven “wonderful, formative” years in the office, handling every case that came before him, from weighty issues of constitutional law to small-claims disputes.
By 1981, less than 10 years out of law school, he was before the Supreme Court. The case was Widmar v. Vincent. Ayres was defending a University of Missouri Kansas City policy that, based on the separation of church and state, prohibited religious student groups from using the student center. When Rehnquist asked him, critically, if the university allowed gay-rights student groups to meet while prohibiting religious groups, Ayres didn’t miss a beat.
“There is no constitutional prohibition with regard to [gay rights] as there is with regard to religious worship,” he rejoined.
“How about the Young Marxists League?” Chief Justice Warren Burger immediately shot back, posing a hypothetical. “Would they be permitted to meet?”
“Unless the meetings were such to advocate the immediate overthrow of the government, … such meetings would be permitted,” Ayres replied.
The hard questions kept coming, and Ayres answered each in turn. He did well. He thought on the fly.
For Ayres, who grew up in Hamilton, Missouri, whose grandfather spent his life guiding a plow behind two horses, the experience was thrilling.
Dedication to Fairness
In all, Ayres enjoyed a 40-year career in higher education law, also serving the University of Colorado, the Kansas Board of Regents and Wichita State University, where he retired as vice president and general counsel.
During his career, most of the issues he dealt with were, at their heart, matters of fairness. Ayres’ principles in that area came from his mother. “I learned from her it was important to treat everyone with respect,” he says. “That was my foundation.”
His mother came from a poor family. While her father plowed with horses, others in the county used tractors. Their corner of Missouri was not racially diverse, but she knew the hurt that could be done by a society that considers a certain class of people “less than.” She instilled that same fire for fairness and equality in her children.
Ayres put those principles into practice most visibly at Wichita State, where he was director of the equal opportunity office and interim director of the Ulrich Museum of Art on campus.
As museum director in 2000, he met and befriended Gordon Parks, the famed photographer, filmmaker, writer and composer, who was the first African American staff photographer for Life Magazine.
Ayres read everything he could find that Parks had published, and when Parks passed away in 2006, Ayres had the opportunity to bring his collected papers to the university library’s special collections department. Ayres spent three months raising $500,000 to acquire the papers. His efforts earned him the person-of-the-year award from the Wichita chapter of the NAACP.
Vision for Mizzou
He brings that same sense of fairness and respect to his term as MAA president.
Given Ayres’ experience at Mizzou — which “has been responsible for the life I’ve led every since, my ability to be a critical thinker,” he says — and his experience dealing with equity issues, he is particularly happy to serve his alma mater this year.
“It’s been a challenging year for Mizzou, but it’s a year of opportunity,” he says. “To have this leadership role at this university at this time means the world to me.”
Ayres says the hallmark of his leadership agenda is communication, cooperation and collaboration. “I want to be a facilitator, to give people the feeling their views are respected and welcomed,” he says. “We’re all members of the human race. Let’s give everyone the opportunity to succeed. To fail. And to learn from that.”
It’s a concept Ayres has lived out.
He never made it back to the Supreme Court after Widmar, a case he lost, 8-1. But he learned from it. He was proud of his preparation and performance and drew tremendous confidence from the experience.
“I’m still convinced they were wrong,” he says.