Setting the Bar

Richard Gardner

School Imitating Life

Modeled after Professor Richard Gardner’s own government service, the Seminar in Legal Aspects of Foreign Economic Policy teaches students to think like presidential advisers

By Mary Johnson

Winter 2010

In February, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker spoke to a group of Columbia Law School students about U.S. financial policy. But he wasn’t standing at a podium, in front of a packed auditorium. Instead, the current head of President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board joined the 22 students who comprise Professor Richard Gardner’s Seminar in Legal Aspects of Foreign Economic Policy for an intimate evening at Gardner’s home.

Volcker is not the first government dignitary to share an evening with the professor and his students. Gardner created the course in 1957, making it the longest-running seminar in Law School history, and he has structured it to resemble an advisory committee. In that vein, Gardner has hosted guests from various branches of government, including Jacob Javits, the longtime New York senator; William McDonough, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; and Robert D. Hormats, the under-secretary of state for economic, energy, and agricultural affairs. “I make a point to expose the students to key policymakers,” Gardner says.

Although the annual evenings are always enlightening, the setting has never been overly formal or academic. “To have the students come to a professor’s home is a sign of friendship,” he says. “I think it’s an important thing to do.”

Guests like Volcker give the course an aura of authenticity, as does Gardner’s extensive experience in government. From 1961 to 1965, he served as deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, under President John F. Kennedy. He was named U.S. ambassador to Italy in 1977, during the Carter administration. Then, in 1993, President Clinton asked Gardner to become the U.S. ambassador to Spain.

Nearly 50 years after his first government appointment, Gardner is an active member of the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy. He also attends the annual World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings. And each trip—whether it be to Washington, D.C., or some far-off international location—allows him to incorporate current events into the classroom. 

“I go to Washington four or five times a year to meet with people on the cutting edge of these issues,” Gardner says. “I ask them: ‘What are you are going to be focusing on in the coming months?’”

The answer to that question formed the basis of this year’s seminar, lending a sense of immediacy to the topics of discussion outlined on Gardner’s spring 2010 syllabus—domestic and foreign energy policy, climate change, financial regulatory reform, and the Chinese exchange rate, among others. Gardner has challenged his team of 22 students, who were carefully selected from a pool of 80 prospective candidates, to address those pressing issues. In the process, members of his class often draw upon their professional experiences, as well as their personal backgrounds. Participants this semester hail from France, the Czech Republic, the Philippines, and Iraq, among other countries, and their résumés include positions at law firms, large corporations, and media organizations, as well as jobs with the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“This year, some of the candidates were so fantastic that I couldn’t say no to them,” notes Gardner, who has watched several of his former students go on to high-ranking government positions. Antony Blinken ’88 is the national security adviser for Vice President Joseph Biden; Andrew J. Shapiro ’94 is the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs; and Michael Bradfield ’59 is general counsel for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Over the course of the semester, Gardner’s students take turns making comprehensive policy presentations to the group, and a final paper gives them a sense of the type of research-intensive work government advisers do on a daily basis. “I tell them it should be written as if it were a chapter in a report to the president,” Gardner says. “I really want them to feel like they are part of a special presidential commission.”

The papers must be tightly focused, providing background information, as well as specific recommendations to solve the problem at hand—because, as Gardner notes, when the national security adviser calls with a difficult question, an abstract academic analysis won’t suffice. National security issues require practical advice—fast. “I realize I’m giving these students an almost impossible task,” the professor concedes. “But that’s the challenge you have in government. When there is a problem, you have to think: ‘What do we do about it now?’”

And that training has its benefits. “If I get a really good paper, I’ll send it off [to the appropriate person in government],” Gardner says. “And many times there is a job offer right away.” Several years ago, one his students wrote an exceptional piece on foreign aid. Gardner immediately dispatched the paper to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who wrote the professor a personal note of thanks—and offered the student a job in the State Department.