Michael Cannon grew up in Peoria, Illinois, with one older brother. After graduating from law school, he began his career as a federal prosecutor of government corruption cases for the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice Criminal Division. He went on to work at several private law firms in Washington, DC. Then, in 1993 he returned to St. Louis, Missouri, where he had done his undergraduate studies at Washington University. He is currently the university’s Executive Vice Chancellor and General Counsel. He is also the uncle of Ben Cannon, who won a Rhodes Scholarship in 2000.
What did your father and mother do?
For most of the time I was growing up, my dad was dean of the school of music at Bradley University. He was a professional violinist. My mother worked in several offices as a secretary, notably for eight years as my father’s secretary.
What kind of values do you think they tried to instill in you as you were growing up?
Certainly, there was considerable emphasis on the importance of education. I think there was also a strong emphasis on integrity, self-discipline, and an appreciation of music and art, even though I turned out to be woefully untalented in that realm.
As a child what kind of activities did you participate in or enjoy?
Sports to be sure. It would have been difficult to grow up in Peoria without that being a major part of one’s life, so traditional sandlot games – – football, baseball, and basketball in particular. I also spent a lot of time alone as a kid also doing the customary little boy things-building forts, hiking through woods that weren’t far from our home, and all sorts of imaginative play in that regard. I also played neighborhood games of hide the flag and other street games that would only end thirty minutes after the parents had collectively screamed at their kids to get home because it was completely dark.
Do you think your parents were a huge influence on you? Did you have other people besides your parents?
My older brother was a significant influence on my life.
How much older was he?
Three and a half years.
In what way did he influence you?
He was the academic star in the family. I was a notable underachiever all through grade school and even well into high school. He had a standard that was very high and I was pretty well convinced that I would never meet it, but it was still a standard I admired. I was probably like many little brothers, quite interested in his approval and judgment.
What turned it around for you? Obviously, you started to excel.
What turned it around was going away to college and finding out that I was in love with ideas. I loved to write and the demands I made upon my own writing to some extent drove the improvement in my analytical skills. I liked the academic challenge at college and each success developed some additional confidence which in turn probably bred a little more success, and over time that process had the effect of causing me to revisit and revise the image I had developed as a kid that I was not destined to do much of anything.
Before college I had an image of myself as a good kid and a reasonably nice kid, but not as an academically strong kid. I did have some pursuits in high school that engaged the mind and I enjoyed them. For a bit of time I was in debate and I took a debate class. I enjoyed the writing challenges and in high school I did well particularly in English, other writing classes, and history. I started turning some things around there, particularly in the second half of high school, but up to that point I was pretty reliably mediocre.
I did, however, always do well in history, which was an area of particular interest for me as a kid. I had something of a photographic memory until I was thirteen or fourteen, and without trying I would actually memorize most of my history textbook and then bore my parents to tears on long car trips reciting the book. My mother and I spent a lot of time talking about U.S. history in particular.
What period in particular did you enjoy?
We talked about twentieth century history. She was not a particularly well-educated woman in her own right, but she was attentive to the world and prompted me to be attentive to it as well. My first recollection of world events come from when I was five years old. I had just started to read and was reading Life magazine about the Hungarian Revolution and the Sinai invasion which were both 1956 events. Those were things the family did talk about a bit.
Then in college?
Things very immediately and very thoroughly turned around for me. Turned around may be overstating it. I was not a bad student by the end of high school. The key to academic success in college lies today as well as then in the ability to write. As a kid, I had done a lot of reading in school as well as tremendous amounts of reading of historical novels and other novels outside of school. That is partly why from a pretty early age I had a good relationship with the pen. Early in college I realized that the writing ability also reflected some capabilities in the thinking-and-organizing-of-thoughts department.
The writing skills produced a certain confidence that freed me up to try new ideas, because I knew I could present them moderately well and get decent feedback. I had a very notable moment very early in college. I had placed out of freshman English into an upper class English course. I wrote a paper on Paradise Lost. It was perhaps my first paper in college and the professor, on handing back the papers, asked me to come to the front of the class and read my paper. I read it with all the inflection and drama of a ritualistic recitation of Mao’s little Red Book; my monotonal incantation of the paper must have been just deadening. (I was operating under some notion that, particularly as a freshman, one should carefully avoid appearing pleased or proud at having been singled out for praise.) After a few pages, the professor politely told me that I could stop the reading and retake my seat. I’m sure the class was relieved. But it was a very key moment, because she had noted something unusual about the writing and again forced me to rethink my self-image.
Were you an economics major at that point?
At that point I wasn’t a major in anything yet. I was taking biology, English, history. But I did settle on economics to some extent. I don’t think the way I actually selected my major quite conformed to the norm. I took the major-selection form with me to class on the day it was due, and resolved to fill it out while in the middle of a psychology class. Sitting next to my roommate, I listed all the various majors I could conceive of majoring in onto one piece of paper. There were about ten different subject areas. I threw my pencil in the air and it landed on political science and I decided I didn’t want to do that. My roommate then made me put all the money in my pocket (all three dollars of it) onto his desk with the condition that if I didn’t fill out the form with the subject that the pencil next hit, I would forfeit the money. It hit economics. In truth, though, that was what I wanted anyway, because it struck me as having a level of analytic rigor that perhaps other subject areas did not. In a way, I was a little concerned that writing ability would enable me to skate by with less than a real challenge to the development of my analytic skills. It was a bit of risk for me, because I was not a strong math student. I had some math aptitude, but I had not been in accelerated or honors math courses in high school and there was a lot to catch up on.
Who suggested you apply for the Rhodes?
That’s a memory that makes me smile. He is now deceased, but an economics professor at Washington University – Hyman Minsky. I went in to see him in August of my senior year and asked if he would be kind enough to write me a recommendation for law school. He was a very curmudgeonly, crusty guy. I really enjoyed his monetary policy classes and his temperament. He asked me a few questions. A couple of them seemed reasonable enough. He asked me about my overall grade point and some of my activities. Then, he asked me about sports. I thought that was odd, but I told him. He chewed on it for a moment and said, “Well, I’m not going to write you a recommendation for law school just yet, because I think you’re a horse’s ass.” I was a little stunned and stuttered out some kind of request that he explain. And he said, “You ought to be applying for a graduate scholarship or fellowship. I would suggest either the Rhodes or the Marshall.” He went on to say that if I did that, he would both serve as a reference for the scholarship and for my law school applications.
I looked into the Marshall and I believe that at that time it was something you had to fill out in sextuplet, while the Rhodes only required triplicate. In all honesty, I did very little research about either. I probably fit the criteria for Rhodes competition a little better. Those are the factors that prompted me to apply for the Rhodes. We did not have any kind of mentoring program at Washington University at the time, no kind of sources of information. It was all very much by lore. I did pick up a little bit of lore and then applied.
What was your sport in college?
I was very active in intramural football and basketball and various other things. I had run competitively in high school and I was still running pretty actively in college. I still do.
You still do triathlons?
Intermittently. Not as much as I used to. I still aspire to one day achieve mediocrity. I have achieved it actually. From time to time I have even managed to medal in my age group which is mostly a reflection of the fact that my age group is getting very old.
Let’s get back to your childhood. Did your family travel much?
Yes, the best parts of childhood were our family road trips. I have strong recollections of those. We traveled by car a lot. Starting when I was about five, on the spur of the moment we packed up the car and spent three days on the road to get to Florida. That became an annual expedition. My parents would haul us out of school just before Christmas vacation, so we could put together a couple weeks.
The car trips were magnificent. My best memories as a kid without doubt were being awakened and carried to the car to begin our family road trips under the pre-dawn starry skies, and then lying on the mattress in the back of the station wagon with my brother, feigning sleep, and watching the stars give way to the dawn. There were no seat belts of course, so the back of that station wagon was a marvelous play area for those long car trips.
We traveled to Florida, California, the Rockies, New York City, and Washington, DC. We spent lots of time in Canada in very remote, wild country feeding ourselves for a couple of weeks largely on the fish we caught.
What about overseas travel?
Not with my parents.
Because of the time?
You went to a public school?
It was an inner city high school that was reasonably rough.
What about roles models? Did you have any growing up? Fictional or real.
Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird. Who doesn’t? That was a role model not only for lawyering, which had some relevance to the ambition I developed to become a lawyer, but also of relevance to the kind of father I aspired one day to be. If anything, the more important element of that character was his relationship to both kids, but particularly to his daughter, the narrator “Scout.” Atticus was an unusual male character with a certain kind of strength and yet a combination of maternal and paternal behaviors that seemed very meaningful and genuine to me.
When was the first time you read that book?
I was ten or eleven. I did a lot of reading. My mother did a lot of reading. Her bookshelves were full and I snatched anything that seemed interesting.
Let’s go to your time at Oxford. Was it very culturally shocking?
There were a lot of cultural adjustments to be made. You’ve heard the old saw about the British and Americans-“two cultures separated by a common language.” Oxford did not feel at all times as hospitable, nurturing or as interested in us as students and people as I had been accustomed to from a U.S. university. There was a certain degree of loneliness to be dealt with, not so much homesickness but loneliness. Oxford was a very different city at the time I was there in ’73-’75. The streets really were rolled up at night by nine o’clock. There was nothing. Nowhere to go and nothing much to do when you got there. It’s very different today. It was a nation under considerable strain at that particular time. This was during the era of the three-day work week introduced as a result of the combination of the Arab oil embargo, train strikes, and other labor unrest in England. There was energy for lighting and such for less than the full week. The receptivity to Americans, while not bad, was not particularly warm. I also had a drawback. I have a somewhat dark complexion and I was oft times mistaken for a South Asian. That did not always get me a very nice reception in the UK of the early- to mid-70’s. On occasion I experienced a bit of anti-Semitism as well, which I had experienced a fair bit in the small city where I grew up, but which was a surprise to me in Britain.
Within the student body?
No, the town. Those were some of the difficult adjustments. There was also obviously much that was very rewarding about the actual experience. I did the purest kind of research one can image. Pure in the sense that I ended writing my thesis as a result of just reading a wide array of books on modern history, post-war international relations, and Middle East conflict issues. I ended up doing a thesis on U.N. peacekeeping operations in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but I came to it just by dint of reading anything I could get my hands on and spending days in Blackwell’s sitting in the stacks, reading one book, putting it back very carefully, avoiding doing any damage to the book they were trying to sell, and then going on and reading another one. I was being led by my interests and passions at the time. During that time I thought I would be more inclined to seek a career in national security issues. I enjoyed that work immensely. I also forged very strong friendships with several other scholars that have been life long, and with some of the British students, particularly those with whom I rowed on crew, who were normally a fair bit younger, but very impressive and interesting.
Was it the first time you ever felt that passion in your work?
No, but this was much more in-depth research and a much longer process. I wasn’t in a hurry to find a thesis, develop it, write it, and defend it. Having said that, a major adjustment for me above and beyond all else was pace. The academic pace at Oxford was so much slower than that of an American university. I recall the first time I went to the Bodleian to take out a couple of volumes that I had seen referenced. They had the materials and I was politely told it would take three or four days to get them. I was slack jawed. If I wanted to see my thesis advisor, that too could not happen for at least several weeks, in one case a month. The adjustment I needed to make was in realizing this pace was not necessarily bad at all. It was just different. I had to slow down and not regard each of these impediments as consequential. They really weren’t.
For travel, where did you go?
Lot of countries in Europe. Israel. At that time, it was not easy to go to Israel and then go to the other nations in the region. If Israel was on the passport, there would be problems. That proved an impediment in my taking up the invitation of an Egyptian graduate student I had met who invited me to his home in Cairo. My thesis work took me to Israel. I spent a month there.
Did your travels change your viewpoint or philosophy in any way?
I don’t think I noted a change in philosophy or viewpoint, but I have the feeling today that that kind of travel probably did broaden my perspective on my own nation. It can’t help but do that. It put the United States and our preoccupations in a more appropriate context and opened me to the possibility of viewing international conflict in a different way. I don’t think it was a situation where I came back from four weeks of traveling on the continent and said, “My goodness, I’ll never look this problem the same way again.” But had I not been doing that, I might have ended up being another American who doesn’t conceive of a different way of looking at the same world problems.
So your degree at Oxford ended up being in politics?
Yes, a B.Litt. in Politics which one of my thesis examiners – – a wonderful man named Alistair Buchan, who founded the International Institute for Strategic Studies – – urged me to convert into a D. Phil. I somewhat foolishly thought that the additional year he thought it would require would somehow have taken me out of the mainstream of where I wanted to be back in the United States. I was more in a hurry at that juncture than I needed to be.
Let’s talk about failure. What’s your perspective on failure?
My general perspective on failure is that it’s nothing more nor less than a central part of the human condition. We can’t deny it as a human life experience. It is there for a purpose. It humbles us and it has humbled me. I’ve had plenty of it, particularly in my childhood, and I’m probably a stronger person for it. That’s almost a cliché.
Can you cite an example from your childhood?
[Chuckles] There are too many. Failure at violin. My father was a violinist. I naturally aspired to be a violinist. I spent five years at it and I was just dreadful. I know there was a positive lesson for me in that failure: I needed to find my own passion or path. And if I were to follow too closely in the footsteps of the role models around me, the pain of failure would likely be my ever-constant companion. So I set out on my own course. That was one good lesson from that failure.
In failure lies much of the humor of life as well. One of the reasons I was not a very dedicated violinist was that I somehow thought my future would be tied up in my basketball prowess. The funny thing is I’m all of 5′ 9″.
At that time, you didn’t think you were stopping at 5′ 9″.
At that time, I didn’t even conceive of any such limitations. After all, I did have a good jump shot. [Laughs] It was all possible. I think failure is there to remind us of our important limitations, but occasionally it challenges us to rise above them. Picking and choosing where we accept our failures and limitations, and where we struggle against them, is much of what defines us.
So when do you think one should struggle against it?
Depends mostly on how important the area of failure is in one’s heart. It wasn’t in my heart to try to become a fine violinist. It was very much in my heart to become a thoughtful, successful student. I struggled against what had been some (it may be overstating it to call it) failures, or at least some substantial underachievement early on. Fortunately, it was important to me. One of my parents’ great contributions was not having it appear so terribly important to them that I set the world afire in my public school career. They just wanted to see there was serious effort.
Did they have the same expectations of your older brother?
I’m not sure. Whatever those expectations were, he was surpassing them. That was probably not an issue. Their success was treating two different boys differently. When I the switch got finally got flipped for me, it was my flipping it for my needs and ends and not to serve others.
What do you enjoy about what you do right now?
Almost everything. The legal department I oversee consists of thirteen attorneys and the greatest reward is watching and assisting in their professional development and successes. That sounds hokey, but it really is and has been for some time my greatest pleasure. I am surrounded by some very fine lawyers and I’ve been privileged to help them grow and realize their ambitions, and that has just about all the psychic satisfaction you can shake a stick at.
I also have as my sole client an institution whose mission is really important to me in terms of educating the young, caring for the ill, and advancing knowledge. So to the extent I’m able to advance its goals, I feel pretty good about that.
I also just love the incredible breadth and diversity of legal issues that confront a major research university, particularly one with a top tier medical center. On a given day, I may be negotiating the terms of a license agreement for some major new pharmaceutical, doing a significant real estate deal, involved in cutting edge litigation over the rights of research participants in clinical trials, or advising on all manner of commercial litigation. The diversity of my practice at Washington University is one of the major features of the work that distinguishes this from my prior careers as a federal prosecutor of government corruption cases and as a private practice attorney specializing in insurance coverage disputes. Those were wonderful careers, but over time the inbox didn’t seem to change very much. In my current position, the inbox is just full of surprises every day.
Is that why you decided to take that job?
It was a major factor. So was the opportunity to have as my client an institution whose existence and mission were just vitally important to me. And I don’t mean this particular research university and academic medical center. It’s somewhat a coincidence I ended up at my alma mater. I had decided this was a direction I wanted to go and was looking for the right university with the right combination of high selectivity, great medical school, top-tier faculty, cutting-edge research and strong technology transfer enterprise. Washington University was one of the first that emerged on the scene. I thought it was fitting. After being away for twenty odd years, it was exciting to come back.
And you don’t miss D.C.?
We miss friends in D.C. and we’ve been diligent in maintaining those friendships. That was hard to leave. My wife has cited the newspapers as a major blow to us, moving from where there is the Washington Post to something that is definitely not the Washington Post. But we both like St. Louis quite a bit. It’s a community where we feel we can have some really useful role to play. St. Louis is a bit less career-preoccupied and obsessed. My wife teaches at the law school here. I also teach a course once a year at the law school in an area that reflects a lot of my background as a partner in a large law firm Washington. So I get into the classroom, which I enjoy enormously.
What do you teach exactly?
It’s an insurance law and policy course.
Do you also mentor students or just the fledgling lawyers?
No, not the fledgling lawyers. I used to do academic advising for a small group of undergraduates, but that has proven very hard to combine with the other things I do here. But I do from time to time mentor students who are looking into postgraduate fellowships and scholarships except when I’m serving on a Rhodes selection committee, in which case for a year before and after serving on such a committee, I don’t mentor students at Washington University who are competing for a Rhodes.
What would you say to anyone about going beyond living a mediocre life – about living a rich, fulfilling life? After all, I know you were in pursuit of mediocrity.
[Laughs] Only in the connection with triathlons. Beginning and end of the story: self-awareness that comes from brutal honesty about what one cares about, what one doesn’t, one’s weaknesses and capabilities. With that kind of brutal self-awareness you can apply your energies to things you really care about. It’s separating what you care about and want to affect from what others might want you to care about and affect. Then, be willing to take risks.
I took a risk on economics, as my math skills were mediocre (to use the word of choice here). In the grand scheme of things, it was a small risk. In the mindset of a new sophomore in college who was not that far removed from a much-less-than-stellar academic performance in high school, it felt like a big risk. But I wanted to take it, because I was honest about what I really wanted. I wanted to become an analytically strong person and I really thought that for whatever reason economics would be the right means to that end.
I took a risk in coming to Washington University to take on the Executive Vice Chancellorship, because the truth is that what I knew about university law before coming here wouldn’t have filled a Dixie cup. But I knew what I wanted was that freshness, that charge from the diversity and breadth of research university legal issues. I wanted to take risks in the sense of being scared the first time I was coming into contact with all sorts of new issues.
Those are risks worth taking. But they can only be taken when you’re real honest about what matters. I had a partnership in a prestigious law firm in DC and most of the advice I was getting from my colleagues was, “Why in the world would you ever give that up, especially to earn notably less money?” Because I found it possible to be honest about what I really wanted. I wanted to be a more broad-gauged lawyer for a client I cared more about than the average client out there. So it’s the combination of honesty and willingness to take risks.
Do you think you became the economics major because you wanted to develop both sides of yourself?
Actually, that’s insightful. What I liked about English study is the opportunity to bring a strong analytical set of skills to bear in conducting close textual analysis as well as in developing an overall understanding of a piece of literature. But I wanted to refine and deepen the logic skills. Economics was a very valuable major for me. I apply it in all sorts of things I do professionally, whether in litigation, transactions or general management. Not economics in the sense of having some unusually sophisticated understanding of how our economy works – – my knowledge of economics is now a little old and rusty – – but in the way one is taught to think. At Yale Law School there was something of an emphasis, as there are at many law schools today, on the role of economic thinking in law, perhaps less so at Yale than at places like Chicago. That kind of thinking at law school was also really rewarding to me in that same way. But I never wanted to lose, and don’t think I’ve lost, the ability to respond on other levels to literature. So I’ve been interested to keep, and very much hope I’ve kept, in close touch with both of those sides of myself you’ve asked about.
Now that you’ve been a father for a while, how close are you to being like Atticus Finch?
[Laughs] Both of my kids read To Kill a Mockingbird at the appropriate time, usually I think it’s late middle school, and I should someday ask them. It would be a dangerous question, because I might not get the answer I want. I don’t know what they’d say about that, other than observing that I really don’t look much like Gregory Peck. How close do I think I came to Atticus Finch? Well, if I leave my kids a legacy of honesty, decency, and empathy, which is a good part of the Atticus Finch legacy, then I don’t care if they think I was like Atticus Finch or not. [Laughs] I will I have done the job, but then again my wife has had a pretty major role in this, too. She was a civil rights lawyer for a time, so she’s probably better suited to laying claim to the Atticus Finch model than I.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee