B.A., University of Virginia, 1989; M.A., The Catholic University of America, 1992; J.D., University of Texas School of Law, 1997; Ph.D., The Catholic University of America, 2012; Graduate Lecturer, The Catholic University of America, 1992-1993; Counsel, Committee on Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, 1997-1998; Counsel, Committee on Energy and Commerce, U.S. House of Representatives, 2001-2004; Associate Attorney, Balch & Bingham LLP, 1998-2001; Partner, Balch & Bingham LLP, 2004-2005; Partner, Hunton & Williams LLP, 2005-2011; Graduate Lecturer, The Catholic University of America, 2008-2011; Counsel, Hunton & Williams LLP, 2011-13; Tutor, Thomas Aquinas College, 2013-.
The months prior to the start of the 2013-14 academic year were a busy time for Dr. Sean B. Cunningham. In addition to preparing for the defense of his doctoral dissertation (“Natural Inclination in Aquinas”), he was readying his family for a move across the country and tending to one last responsibility at work — drafting a petition for a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Leaving a successful law practice is “a very risky and unusual step,” concedes Dr. Cunningham, one that he never anticipated in the early days of his 16-year legal career, which culminated in his being made partner at the 800-attorney firm of Hunton & Williams, LLP, in 2005. Yet a longstanding passion for philosophy, coupled with a yearning to teach, made the opportunity to become a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College irresistible.
One of three children, Dr. Cunningham grew up in Tennessee and attended the University of Virginia, where he majored in history and political philosophy. Although raised as an Episcopalian, he became convinced through reading St. Augustine and others that “for Christianity to be true, there had to be an authority to guarantee the communication of that truth in history,” he says. That insight “leads to the Church,” which he entered in his sophomore year.
After graduating from UVA, Dr. Cunningham enrolled in the Catholic University of America, where he earned a master’s degree in philosophy. He also completed coursework for a doctorate, but then left CUA for the University of Texas School of Law, with hopes of becoming a law professor. The arc of law school, however, guided him in a different direction, and upon graduation, he began working as an attorney, alternating between serving as counsel for various Congressional committees and private practice.
Still, his penchant for philosophy persisted, and in 2009 Dr. Cunningham returned to CUA, after 15 years’ absence, to complete his doctorate. During that time he taught several undergraduate classes which, he says, brought about a new realization: “I really wanted to teach.” With the blessing of his wife, Joanna, he began searching for jobs in higher education.
The day after successfully defending his dissertation, Dr. Cunningham came to the College to interview for a position on the teaching faculty. He was still uncertain about changing professions, though, until he led students in a practice seminar. “It was absolutely astonishing,” he says. “There were 16 kids volunteering to read Book 1 of Aristotle’s On the Parts of Animals, and they were just as enthusiastic as they could be — and well prepared. The pedagogy here expects a lot of the students that, if you have only operated in lecture-style systems, you would not even think was possible. From that moment I knew that if I was going to teach, this was the place to do it.”