An Interview with Dean David M. Schizer

An Interview With David M. Schizer

announced your appointment, much was made of your relative youth. At 35, you are the youngest dean in Law School history - younger even than its first dean, Theodore Dwight, who was 36 when the Law School was founded in 1858. Are there advantages to youth in this job?

Deans need energy and enthusiasm, and they should also bring a fresh perspective - a sense that our flaws can be fixed, and that our potential is limitless. The stereotype,  at least, is that young people are more likely to have these qualities. Deans also need an easy rapport with students, and being closer to their age helps.

Young David sets his sights high as he flies his kite.

Your parents are lawyers. Did your family inspire you to study law?

My parents were a very important influence. Our family dinners were Socratic dialogues, and I enjoyed this interplay. I also was encouraged to leave the world a better place than I found it and to believe that lawyers have special responsibilities. I am named for my paternal grandfather, who was born in the Ukraine to a life of poverty and violence. His parents died of disease, his grandfather was lynched in a pogrom, and he himself was nearly shot by an anti-Semitic mob. In search of a better life, he took his two younger siblings to the United States, where he studied at Columbia's Teachers College and became a Hebrew teacher. He was a poor man who struggled to eat during his first year in the United States, lost his savings during the Great Depression, and later lost his eyesight. Even so, he always paid more taxes than he owed - a way of showing gratitude to his adopted land. I often think of my grandfather, even though I never met him. All of us owe a debt to past generations, a debt that we can repay only by building on the foundations they have laid.

As an undergraduate at Yale, you graduated with a 3.99 grade point average. So, what class did you get an A- in?

It was a seminar with a distinguished American historian named John Morton Blum. We were asked to write a paper about someone who had made a difference in the world. I chose Abraham Lincoln, a case that, I have to confess, is a bit too easy to make.

As a student at Yale

You got a M.A. in History along with your B.A. What led you to law school?

I love history and studied it in college as a way to explore fundamental questions about war and peace, social policy, and leadership. I took graduate courses because they offered more contact with faculty and more opportunities to write. After four years, I ended up with enough graduate credits to earn a master's degree, along with my B.A., but I never intended to be a historian. I wanted to be a lawyer because, to me, law is applied policymaking. If you believe in something, how can you make it happen? This is the essence of the lawyer's craft, and I have always found it incredibly exciting.

What attracted you to your specialty, tax law?

As the legal realists taught us, "law is policy." I would add that, "tax law is tax policy - and it is very important policy, indeed." A well-functioning tax system is essential to an efficient economy and to a fair distribution of wealth. Even though opinions differ on these vital social issues, few people understand how our tax system really works. The tax law is incredibly complicated, so critically important features - for instance, decisions about timing, or about which jurisdiction collects the tax - are buried in obscure corners of the code. Tax lawyers are the main players in these critically important debates, and I wanted to be a player, too. 

I also love the intellectual stimulation of tax law and policy. Tax experts parse statutory language, considering how legal characterizations change when facts change, even in subtle ways. This exercise is part statutory interpretation and part commercial sophistication. If you like solving challenging puzzles, tax is for you.

You practiced tax law for three years and decided to go into teaching. What led to this decision?

I enjoyed the tax practice and my colleagues at Davis Polk & Wardwell. I also had opportunities to write, something I love to do. In a sense, my practice was very academic. I had no plans to leave, but Columbia needed a tax professor, and the appointments committee learned about me from a number of tax lawyers, and also from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg '59. When the appointments committee asked whether I wanted to be considered, I knew I couldn't say no.

Columbia has been a perfect fit for me. While the challenge of solving a client's problems is engaging, the challenge of solving society's problems is even harder, and even more exciting. Practicing lawyers are substantially less free to speak their minds, since they develop their expertise in the service of clients. In contrast, academics have independence to question conventional wisdom. We have the expertise necessary to engage with the world's most serious problems. To that end, in my mind, legal academics have a special responsibility to try and change the world. To me, this is like being told that eating hot fudge is healthy, since I absolutely love teaching!

Before you were appointed dean, you served as co-chair of the appointments committee, and your primary responsibility was to hire young faculty. How important will faculty recruitment be during your deanship?

Hiring new faculty will be extremely important. In fact, one of my principal strategic goals is to reduce our student-faculty ratio, so that we offer students more intense interaction with the faculty. To do this, we need to hire more professors, for instance, so we can significantly reduce the size of our first-year sections.

Before becoming dean, you served as chair of the Deals program. Do you plan to build on the success of this program?

Absolutely. Our ambition is to train the world's greatest transactional lawyers, while reinforcing our position as a leading force in business law scholarship. We have designed an innovative curriculum. Our location in New York City - the deal capital of the world - is a great advantage. Professor Curtis Milhaupt '89 is taking my place as chair of the Transactional Studies Program, and we are planning exciting new programs.

Dean Schizer and his wife, Meredith at a law school event in 2001

You have only been in the job for a short time now, but what are your early goals and plans for the Law School during your deanship?

I know it sounds a bit immodest, but my goal is for us to change the world. Every time I read the newspaper, I am struck by the centrality of law and of legal challenges in modern life. Will we have peace or war, liberty or tyranny, prosperity or poverty? Legal systems across the globe will determine the answers to these questions, and Columbia Law School faculty needs to play a central role in this process. Although our faculty has a broad range of expertise across innumerable fields, we are united by a central goal: We are looking to have influence, and to offer concrete policy advice that is grounded and relevant. We don't do theory for its own sake.

We also have an impact through the students we train. We make a vital contribution in training the next generation of leaders - not just for the United States, but for the world. I want Columbia to be a great school where teaching matters, where the curriculum is innovative and exciting. We begin from a very strong position, and I plan to build on that legacy.


Dean Schizer
Photo: Dustin Ross