The Talent

August 26, 2010 4:06 PM

Northwestern Law Dean David Van Zandt Named President of The New School

Posted by Ed Shanahan


Updated 8/26/10 at 6:45 p.m.

Northwestern law school dean David Van Zandt started his day Thursday in New York City. There was big news to be announced that required a trip to the Big Apple: Effective January 1, 2011, Van Zandt will assume the presidency of The New School university.

There were meetings and introductions, even a quick photo shoot (see photo above). By the afternoon, the popular law school dean and professor was back in his Chicago office fielding calls from reporters about the move. And in the hours after the appointment was officially announced, news of the move spread across the Internet.

Leaving Northwestern law and the prominent perch from which Van Zandt has been pushing for changes in legal education might strike some as a surprise. But who would begrudge a successful, ambitious, and driven educator the opportunity to make a change after 25 years?

Van Zandt, 57, joined Northwestern as a faculty member in 1985; he was appointed dean of the law school in 1995. He had practiced for some years at Davis Polk & Wardwell before moving to academia, after two notable clerkships and his own legal education at Yale. Now, he's ready for a change.

He will succeed current New School president and former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, 66, whose tenure as head of the diverse--and dispersed--urban university has been defined by contention and controversy.

The basics about today's news are in this announcement from The New School, and there's also this story from our colleagues at The National Law Journal.

The Am Law Daily had the chance to chat with Van Zandt for a few minutes late Thursday afternoon about the move.

Congratulations on your appointment, Dean Van Zandt. So, tell us how this came about. You have described the past 25 years at Northwestern as a pleasure, working in a wonderful community. From that position, what was it that struck you about this job at the New School?

One of the things I always tell our students is that they’re embarking on multi-job careers--the average student, that is. On average people move. That’s one of the great things about the profession, you can do all kinds of things. I have been here 25 years, Northwestern’s been very good to me. Now, it’s probably a point in my career where, if something like the presidency of The New School came along, it was worth taking a look at. You do see law deans taking off to become university presidents with some frequency. Just being a university president might not have interested me, but what excited me about The New School is that it’s so innovative, and it has a great reputation, especially with schools like Parsons and other parts. It’s the challenge that appeals to me. I’m not an administrator. It’s more about trying to push an organization forward.

You will be leaving the law, which has been part of your life for a long time. Any qualms about this?

Part of me is a bit sad but I’ll keep my eye on things. I hope journalists still will call to talk to me about law school and legal education. It’s going through a lot of change, and faces a lot of pressure now. But that’s true of education generally. Small liberal arts colleges, bigger universities. They all have a lot of pressures, and law schools are just one part of the changes going on.

What about the current experience will you draw on the most at the New School, would you say?

Just last night and this morning, I told some of the trustees here and deans and others that it’s so important to look outside the four walls of the institution and see what's happening. The legal services industry is somewhat different in it’s structure. But it’s so important…Because there is pressure coming back at the institution from the outside. Is it really performing? What are you getting for your education? So always look outside.

You've earned a reputation as a law school dean who insisted on making the reality that is law school match up as much as possible with the reality of the job market and the profession. How would you rate yourself on that effort?

I don’t want to rate myself.(Laughing). I can say I had a lot of fun, doing what I've been doing.

OK, then, how about assessing the state of legal education and how it's evolving?

We've made, overall, in legal education some great strides. Still we have a long ways to go. But there are plenty of good people out there who can carry forward. Law schools tend to be still fairly traditional, there are lots of bells and whistles. The economic situation and the financial pressure will increase and be different for different law schools. That will force deans and university administrations to make some changes to try to justify the cost of it… We can use law firms as parallel examples. It was not a very competitive world. It grew some, only when it got much more competitive, and then firms started doing new things, thinking about how to adjust.

The news has been making its way across the Internet over the past few hours. Above the Law had several comments on a post about your move that express great sadness. What do you say to people who are feeling a loss right now?

We have some wonderful people and no big change in direction. I feel very good about that...At the end of the day, legal education is starting to change. It's not just one person bringing about change, it's lots of people.


Photo courtesy of The New School.

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David, did an outstanding job as Dean, from which I graduated in 1956. He developed a vision for the law school, which he worked tirelessly to implement. I expect him to be successful as a university president. He is highly intelligent, insightful, committed to high standards and personable--qualities important to both jobs. After 15 yrs., this move is in the best interest of both institutions, and of David as well. Buon viaggio.

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