Richard B. Stephens
“Founding father” of UF’s Graduate Tax Program
For more than 30 years, the University of Florida Graduate Tax Program has helped prepare students for careers in tax law, and it is widely recognized by tax scholars, practitioners and tax employers nationwide as one of the nation’s leading programs for the advanced study of tax law. Yet, if it hadn’t been for the vision and advocacy of Richard B. Stephens, UF’s outstanding Graduate Tax Program never would have been.
After earning his law degree from the University of Michigan in 1942, Stephens served in the U.S. Navy for one year before entering private practice with the prestigious Washington D.C. firm Covington & Burling. He served at the firm for six years, interrupted only by a term of service as an attorney with the U.S. Office of Military Government in Berlin on the staff of Charles Fahy, the principal U.S. legal officer in Germany.
Stephens joined the faculty at the University of Florida College of Law in 1949. Henry A. Fenn had just been named dean of the college, which had a faculty of nine at the time, and Stephens taught legal accounting, administrative law and corporations, as well as taxation. He was active with Law Review, helped the college achieve national academic recognition that led to Florida’s Order of the Coif chapter and served as faculty adviser to Phi Delta Phi.
Stephens recognized the growing need to increase the number of attorneys working in the area of taxation, which in the past had been solely the province of accountants. After the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913 and the institution of the federal income tax, there were few professionals who received training in, or worked with, taxation issues. This need and Stephens’ experience in private practice led to his interest in establishing a graduate tax program at UF.
Stephens later commented that some of his colleagues viewed his pursuit of a graduate tax program as “empire building.” He acknowledged that convincing Dean Fenn that the program would be successful was difficult because Fenn did not believe students would come to the University of Florida for graduate work. Nonetheless, Stephens persisted in advocating for a tax program and his dream became a reality in the fall of 1974 with the establishment of the Graduate Tax Program.
Stephens was known as being able to take a complex subject like taxation and make it accessible for students to understand.
“My approach could be summed up by saying, ‘They need all the help they can get,’ ” Stephens said. “It seems to me the height of absurdity to walk into a room and try to mystify people by parading your superior knowledge. Maybe four or five percent of the students will be with you, but I never felt that was enough. I worked pretty hard at making my classroom comments understandable to those who had carefully examined the material in advance. I felt they were entitled to that.”
The students certainly agreed. As a UF Law faculty member, Stephens received the first law student Outstanding Teacher Award and was the first law school faculty member to receive the Blue Key Distinguished Faculty Award. In 1985, Stephens was selected as Tax Lawyer of the Year by the Tax Section of The Florida Bar. He also authored a number of books, including: Fundamentals of Federal Income Taxation (co-authored with Stephen A. Lind and James J. Freeland); he also co-authored Income Taxation of Estates and Beneficiaries and The Federal Estate and Gift Taxes.
When the Tax Research Center at the Legal Information Center was named for him in 1986, Stephens said, “I’m enormously flattered that they would name it for me. It’s going to include some of the electronic marvels that have come about in recent years that I really don’t know anything about. But I’m pleased that that’s so. I think it will help keep us ahead and help the school do a very good job at teaching taxation.”
Professor Stephens retired in 1977, and became a visiting professor at the University of California at Davis, Martin Luther King School of Law. During this retirement, Stephens enjoyed managing his investments, taking long walks with his wife, Barbara, and golfing. Stephens passed away April 8, 1988 at the age of 71. He is survived by his daughter Susan Stephens Winn and his son, Richard Jr. (JD 72), an attorney at Holland and Knight; and five grandchildren.