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Lunch at the Four Seasons with: David Rudenstine

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-05-24

David Rudenstine became dean of Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in November 2001, barely two months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"The world changed forever because of those attacks," Mr. Rudenstine said over lunch. "In the time since then, all of us ??? in America and everywhere else ??? have become acutely aware of the forces of globalization, of the impact of economics on social development, of the role of business in shaping societies. Enron collapsed. Corporate scandals have mushroomed."

"Now, more than ever before, law schools and lawyers are critical in influencing the social, economic, political, and ethical fabric of our country," Mr. Rudenstine said. "Americans have always taken their liberties very seriously, but we often forget that lawyers are central in shaping order and liberty in a very complicated society like ours. And the legal community is especially critical to the organization of the market economy."

The vulnerability of America's market economy to corporate abuses has been highlighted in recent months through various investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and other law-enforcement bodies. Dean Rudenstine is convinced that such developments necessitate that law schools enhance education and research opportunities in areas where law, finance, and economics converge.

"Lawyers are essential to the market place because they structure the market place, they make it accountable ??? they have the capacity to ensure better corporate governance," Mr. Rudenstine said. "And contrary to the public impression, lawyers help keep the peace in a ferocious dog-eat-dog free market system. They often build the bridge that solves disputes well short of litigation. They help contain conflicts that are inherent in the corporate world. Their negotiations often result in agreements that are unsung and don't fetch headlines, but are essential to the smooth running of businesses and in the field of corporate governance."

Cardozo Law School, in fact, has been offering courses in corporate governance for nearly two decades. In 1987, it established The Samuel and Ronnie Heyman Center on Corporate Governance to examine the role of corporate enterprises and managerial activity in contemporary society. Besides its own faculty, legal scholars as well as political and business leaders regularly address issues such as fiduciary duty, finance and financial disclosure, securities issuance, and takeover regulation. Mr. Rudenstine noted that such issues have taken on even more prominence in recent months in the wake of Wall Street scandals.

One of Wall Street's nemeses ??? New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer ??? spoke on "Corporate Governance: Past Failures, Present Reforms, and Future Needs." Harvey Goldschmid, Commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission, spoke on "Post Enron America: An SEC Perspective." Warren Buffett has appeared before Cardozo's students, too, and his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway's shareholders was the subject of a conference at Cardozo.

His own background doesn't suggest a specialization in business issues. A graduate of Yale College, Mr. Rudenstine was fired by the idealism of students of the 1960s. He joined the Peace Corps and went to Uganda. There he witnessed two coups, both involving President Milton Obote. He decided that he wanted to go to law school, and took the LSAT at the Kampala office of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Upon graduation from New York University Law School, he worked on civil rights and other social-justice issues.

"My generation had witnessed the collapse of Jim Crow-ism in the South, and other legal victories in civil rights," Mr. Rudenstine said. "So perhaps we were a bit unrealistic about the rate of change across the spectrum of other social issues in America. Some of those issues didn't have the intensity of civil rights. Welfare reform, better protection for consumers ??? these issues proved much more difficult to tackle than invalidating segregation laws."

Mr. Rudenstine persisted. He became the director of a research and writing project associated with the Citizens Inquiry on Parole and Criminal Justice. "I was one of the very few New Yorkers who actually sat through thousands of parole hearings," he said. "I learned that even if you win legal victories, it's very difficult to translate those victories into reality in our complicated social system."

His next job was as counsel to the National News Council, which dealt with issues of fairness and accuracy in the press. Mr. Rudenstine then worked for five years at the New York Civil Liberties Union; he was acting executive director when he left.

He joined Cardozo in 1979, and became Dr. Herman George and Kate Kaiser Professor of Constitutional Law. After a stint as acting dean, Mr. Rudenstine was appointed to the permanent position in November 2001; not only had the terrorist attacks occurred on Sept. 11 that year, but Cardozo had just started observing the 25th anniversary of its founding.

"The management of law schools today has become complicated," Mr. Rudenstine said. "A dean needs to also function as a CEO. It's not just personnel and administrative matters; it's also fundraising and overseeing expenditures. It's ensuring transparency at all levels."

Cardozo's annual budget is $43 million; the school has 1,100 students and 60 faculty members.

In his fundraising efforts, Mr. Rudenstine emphasizes the multi-disciplinary nature of Cardozo's curriculum, and also its commitment to spurring a sense of public service among its students.

"The role of lawyers in our society with regard to public service is unique," Mr. Rudenstine said. "Lawyers are really civic leaders. They often define the public values that are at stake."

In recognition of such a role of lawyers, Cardozo has created a Center for Public Service Law. Its 45 students are selected not only for their commitment to academic excellence but also to public service after graduation.

The question of staffing public-service positions in American society is assuming considerable urgency. According to the Washington-based Partnership for Public Service ??? which was founded by Samuel Heyman ??? fully half of America's 3.9 million federal employees are eligible to retire in the next four years. The replenishment rate is less than desirable.

Mr. Rudenstine said he recognized that the high cost of a legal education ??? fees, housing and other costs amount to nearly $55,000 annually at Cardozo ??? could be a deterrent to students wishing to pursue public service work with the federal, state, or city government, or at a non-governmental organization, where salaries are traditionally modest.

"Law schools are going to have to find ways to give more grants so that students would have less loan obligation," he said. "Everyone in America benefits from having qualified, able, and ethical students pursue public service."

"My sense is that among our students, at least, the numbers aiming toward public service is increasing," Mr. Rudenstine said. "And public service is as much about ethics and moral commitments as it is acting in the public interest. By the time our students graduate, they have a deeper understanding of America's system ??? and the values that drive it."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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