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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: William Treanor

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-05-11

William Treanor is New York's "New Centurion."

"To be heading one of the city's cherished institutions during its centennial year - that's an extraordinary privilege," the dean of Fordham University School of Law said.

The privilege carries with it huge responsibilities. Mr. Treanor, a former prosecutor who is in his fourth year as Fordham's dean, has embarked on a campaign to raise the 1,600-student institution's visibility. Since the start of the centennial, he has created five new chairs to complement the existing 15, with each new position needing $2 million. He wants to persuade 100 donors to give $100,000 each for the school's financial future - and 74 individuals have already agreed. He wants to accelerate general fundraising - and has already tripled Fordham's annual take to $18 million this fiscal year.

And Mr. Treanor wants to reinforce academic programs that focus on training Fordham students to practice law, rather than simply know it. He wants to strengthen the school's links to New York's cultural constituencies - he's launching the first-ever festival in the fall of films with legal themes (among the films planned to be screened will be classics). He has been traveling throughout America to persuade more top law firms to hire Fordham graduates. He's expanding Fordham's human rights, business, international law, and intellectual property programs.

In short, Mr. Treanor is an activist dean, not just another accomplished academic taking his turn in the wheelhouse.

"As dean of the law school, you're required to do broad-level thinking - but also strategic planning," he said. "At the same time, in view of Fordham's centennial, I need to be out there as a spokesman for the school."

Fordham has sometimes been characterized as a "stealth school," and in many respects that is accurate. While other law schools in New York such as those at Columbia University and New York University traditionally receive acclaim for their curriculum, faculty and their success in placing graduates at elite law firms, Fordham has long registered accomplishments without being necessarily applauded.

"We've been under the radar," Mr. Treanor said, acknowledging that the school needed to bolster its public image.

"But Fordham has more graduates in America's top law firms than all but four law schools," he said. "Fordham is also the nation's 15th most selective law school - on par with Berkeley, Cornell and Duke."

Mr. Treanor knows a thing or two about other law schools.

He attended Harvard Law School but transferred to Yale Law School because he felt the latter placed greater emphasis on public service and focused more on student - issues that Mr. Treanor has emphasized at Fordham. He graduated summa cum laude from Yale College, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Before acquiring his law degree from Yale, Mr. Treanor obtained a master's degree in history from Harvard.

That sturdy academic background enabled him to become a widely recognized constitutional historian.

"I examined the original understanding of the Constitution, including issues such as judicial review and the Constitution's takings clause, intellectual property clause, and the war powers clause," Mr. Treanor said. He has been cited twice in Supreme Court opinions. His writings have appeared in the law reviews of the University of Chicago, Cornell, Columbia, Fordham, Georgetown, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, and Yale, among other journals.

Mr. Treanor came to Fordham in 1991 to teach a broad range of topics - property, land use, intellectual property, constitutional law, criminal law, and legal history.

"Those years convinced me of the importance of a complete legal education - intellectual excellence, the craft of lawyering, and dedication to public service," Mr. Treanor said.

He had already been in public service prior to arriving at Fordham. He served variously as a speechwriter to the secretary of education; clerk to Judge James L. Oakes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; special assistant to the chair of the New York State Commission on Government Integrity; special assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia; and as associate independent counsel in the Office of the Iran-Contra Independent Counsel.

Mr. Treanor has enjoyed his own version of the revolving door between the public and private sectors. From 1998 until 2001, while on leave from Fordham, he returned to Washington to serve as deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. The Office of Legal Counsel is responsible for providing legal advice to the attorney general and the White House.

Was the transition from being a teacher and prosecutor to being a law school dean difficult?

"This is an opportunity to development my own management style," Mr. Treanor said. "More than 200 people work at the law school - that means one has to be collegial, and pay special attention to the importance of co-workers."

He also needs to delegate - which is why, during a conversation with a reporter, the dean paid tribute to his associate deans, Ann Moynihan and Matthew Diller, and to Julie Lucas, the law school's head of development.

Mr. Treanor paid tribute, too, to his predecessor, John Feerick, who'd served as the law school's dean for 20 years. Indeed, Fordham has a special center dedicated to public service named after Mr. Feerick, who continues on the institution's faculty.

"We've always emphasized how important it is for young people to get involved on social-justice issues - such as the plight of the homeless," Mr. Treanor said. "Fordham is a place of service, a place where serious discussions take place about the pressing issues affecting contemporary society."

One issue that he said he especially felt proud about was pro bono legal work. Not long ago, Fordham alumni agreed to donate 100,000 hours of their time to such public service during the centennial year.

Mr. Treanor, who understands a thing or two about the pressures of law school, has been trying to ameliorate the tough environment for Fordham students. During exams, students now get free ice-cream and cup cakes. Just prior to summer vacations, each student is given a gift - flip-flops with Fordham's imprint on the bottom.

"I'm trying to encourage a family feeling at the school," Mr. Treanor said. "And as we start our second century, as the school's dean I feel obliged to make the Fordham experience for our students as special as possible."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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