10 Years of Extraordinary Leadership

As he prepares to wrap up a highly successful 10-year term as dean of Columbia Law School, David M. Schizer joins graduates and faculty members in examining how the Law School confronted the unprecedented challenges of the past decade and how it has emerged on the other side—bright future intact and stronger than ever

By Adam Liptak

Spring 2014

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It is a Friday afternoon on the first full day of spring, and Dean David M. Schizer should be exhausted. It has been a long week and a hard winter, and his momentous 10-year term is winding down. Instead, he is exhilarated. 

“I just presented a paper today on the influence of tax on corporate governance,” he says brightly, settling into his corner office overlooking the Columbia campus. “It’s been a while since I’ve written about that, since my writing lately has focused on other issues, like energy and tax expenditures.”

Dean Schizer is characteristically focused on the future, on the challenges and satisfactions that will come from his return to full-time teaching and scholarship. But he does not seem tired or stale. “It was a very satisfying, interesting, and appealing thing to do,” he says of being dean. “We have a 10-year term limit. My joke about that is that I’ve been fired by the 1971 Columbia Law School faculty.”

During the course of an hour-long conversation, Dean Schizer reflects on his extraordinary run. He was tested by challenges he could not have anticipated when he became, at the age of 35, the youngest dean in the Law School’s history. It started with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, which all but wrecked the economy. On top of that, the crisis created distinctive challenges for the legal profession and the legal academy. In the face of those savage headwinds, he achieved exceptional successes, measured by both hard numbers and by the estimation of faculty members and alumni.

Dean Schizer was an indefatigable fundraiser, working to bring in more than $350 million in the most successful fundraising campaign in the history of Columbia Law School. That money helped increase the size of the faculty, from 74 to 93, and to drive down the student-faculty ratio to 7-to-1, or approximately 40 percent lower than when he arrived. The gifts led to the creation of 20 new professorships and 22 new faculty research centers, including those focused on national security law, transactional studies, Israeli law, and climate change law. He has also forged a new partnership with Columbia Business School that included the Three-Year J.D./M.B.A. Program. Throughout his tenure, Dean Schizer kept a keen eye on students’ needs, notably by ensuring through relentless effort that they found employment at very high rates.

“His 10 years as our dean were outstanding in every respect,” says Jonathan D. Schiller ’73, a partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner and the co-chair of Columbia University’s Board of Trustees.

Dean Schizer’s skills turned out to be ideally suited to his times, adds Thomas W. Merrill, the Charles Evans Hughes Professor of Law. “David is emblematic of a new generation of deans,” he says. “He is much more the manager of a complex institution rather than just a distinguished scholar. He’s a great problem solver.”

While the problems he was faced with during his tenure were large, so were Dean Schizer’s solutions. “Few people are given the opportunity to reshape an institution,” says Geoffrey J. Colvin ’77, a partner at CEW Partners, an investment firm. “Even fewer have the skills and leadership to successfully accomplish that task. David has done that. He has transformed the Law School and enabled it to regain its preeminent position in American and international legal education.”

And he did so in a tumultuous time, says Anne E. Cohen ’85, a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton. “David turned out to be the right dean for the challenges of the financial crisis, which could not have been imagined when he took the job,” she adds. “In addition to the fundraising challenges, which he more than met, David was personally tireless in helping students get jobs in what remains a tougher market than that of 2004.”

Alex Raskolnikov, the Charles Evans Gerber Professor of Law, joined the faculty that year, taking over Dean Schizer’s tax class. According to Raskolnikov, the young dean quickly adapted to his new role. “It was not an easy place to start,” Raskolnikov says. “He was very young. He had no management experience. But he’s very smart.”

Like Dean Schizer, Raskolnikov joined the Law School from Davis Polk & Wardwell. Lawyers there, he recalled, occasionally visited big clients to learn more about their businesses. On one such visit, Raskolnikov says, Schizer and other lawyers were allowed to use the client’s computers for a half-hour of pretend trading. “Nobody lost a lot of money,” Raskolnikov says. “A few people made a little. And David made an enormous amount of money.”

That capacity to intuitively understand and navigate through complex situations served Dean Schizer well at the Law School, where he often offered fresh and ultimately successful solutions to new challenges. But that sort of problem solving, several graduates said, was just one aspect of a leader who was both exceptionally competent and deeply principled.

Max W. Berger ’71, a partner at Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossman, says that Dean Schizer has been businesslike in his approach to leading the Law School, but he has also been savvy and engaged. “It’s a political job, and it has to be,” Berger says. “This is one school in a very large and very rich university that has its own level of intrigue.”

He recalled with admiration Dean Schizer’s criticism of a 2007 speaking invitation from the School of International and Public Affairs to then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Dean Schizer issued a statement condemning the move. “Mr. Ahmadinejad is a reprehensible and dangerous figure who presides over a repressive regime, is responsible for the death of American soldiers, denies the Holocaust, and calls for the destruction of Israel,” he said at the time. “It would be deeply regrettable if some misread this invitation as lending prestige or legitimacy to his views.”

That, Berger says, “showed a fair amount of independence.”

Across Amsterdam Avenue, students are enjoying the fine weather and preparing for the weekend. I point to them and ask Dean Schizer whether there is time in his famously crowded schedule for relaxation and reflection.

“How do I spend my time?” he says, rephrasing my question. “My joke is that I spend half raising money, half hiring faculty, and half on everything else.”

I ask him to think back to 2004. Were the challenges he anticipated then the ones that materialized over the next decade?

“I was right about the most important one and certainly wrong about other things,” he replies. The most important task, he says, was improving the school’s financial situation.Thomas Merrill agrees. “He had to devote enormous energy in rebuilding the fundraising,” he says. “Of course, the faculty is sort of oblivious to this.”

Dean Schizer ticks off some numbers. “When I started, our endowment was $300 million,” he says. “Now, it’s more than $600 million.” Before he became dean in 2004, the school was raising $16 million or $17 million a year in new cash and pledges. He has at least doubled that number in seven of his 10 years as dean, and, in one year, he tripled it. When he became dean in 2004, the school had launched a fundraising campaign with a goal of $200 million, a significant increase over the $150 million campaign the school had recently completed. But Dean Schizer raised the goal to $300 million, and when the campaign ended in 2013, the school had raised more than $353 million.

That number was the product of relentless activity and wide outreach. Of the 121 campaign gifts of $500,000 or more, 92 came from donors who had, until then, given modestly or not at all.

“Professional fundraisers think it’s a lot to have 70 individual meetings a year,” Dean Schizer says. “I’ve done 200 or more development meetings a year. I just made it a real priority to mold my schedule so that, when the development people need me, I am available.”

Judging by the results, it seemed to work. “I may have something of an idiot savant’s talent for this,” he says, smiling.

Dean Schizer’s results would have been exceptional in ordinary times. But the times were especially difficult during the past 10 years, Merrill says. “It was a series of great challenges, starting with the financial crisis,” he explains. “The financial crisis was then followed, after a lag, by the bottom falling out of the legal job market. And once prospective students and their parents realized that the bottom had fallen out of the job market, the applications to law schools collapsed.”

Dean Schizer did not foresee the downturn in legal hiring, and he seemed to take it personally. It appeared to him to be an assault on the implicit bargain offered by a legal education at Columbia Law School, and he fought back. “Boy,” he says, “I never expected to have to spend any time, let alone as much time as I ended up spending, on job placement.” The worst period, he adds, was the summer of 2010. In a typical summer, nine out of 10 students would secure second-summer jobs at law firms. That year, the number had dropped to seven of 10.

“I started calling graduates who are general counsels,” he says, explaining how he pressed them to hire Columbia Law School students and graduates. “Our job placement numbers for that year ended up about where they’ve always been. It just took a lot of effort, including from me personally. Happily, I haven’t had to do that so much since.”

Dean Schizer’s successes in student placement and fundraising meant that Columbia Law School has not had to face the wrenching choices confronting much of the rest of the legal academy. But economic realities did require him to bring fiscal discipline to the school’s budget. Invitations to visiting professors grew more selective and support positions were cut.

“We eliminated 31 non-faculty jobs,” he says. “We had 200 people [beforehand, losing] 16 through attrition and 15 through layoffs. It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve had to do.”

But he continued to invest in the school’s faculty, which was already studded with stars. “We’ve hired, I think we’re up to 43 people on my watch, and the net growth is about half of that,” Dean Schizer says. He also added a ninth floor to Jerome Greene Hall to house these new recruits.

And he resisted calls to make law school two years long. “My view is that the J.D. program at Columbia should be three years,” he wrote in this magazine last year, “as long as we use the second and third years the right way.” The Law School’s upper-year curriculum is rich, rigorous, and fulfilling, he wrote, with courses that build professional, interdisciplinary, and international skills. Allowing students to sample those offerings widely, and then deeply, he added, ensures “that our students are better prepared for the wide range of opportunities awaiting them when they leave us.”

Alumni were impressed by Dean Schizer’s commitment to building the faculty and to energizing students.

“He has attracted scholars to Columbia Law School from peer institutions and revitalized the faculty and the curriculum offerings,” Geoffrey Colvin says. For example, he hired four faculty away from Yale Law School, something that had not happened at Columbia for 25 years. He focused especially on assembling a cohort of younger scholars as a way to build for the future.

“David made hiring at the entry level a priority right from the start of his deanship, and it has paid off,” says Professor Jamal Greene, who joined the faculty in 2008. “Columbia has the best group of junior and recently tenured scholars of any law school in the country.”

Anne Cohen adds that Dean Schizer’s initiatives partly reflected his understanding of students’ needs, his willingness to draw on the school’s network of accomplished practitioners in the nation’s financial capital, and his dedication to forging a sense of community.

“David inherited and added to programs and changes in the physical plant,” she says, “which have made Columbia not only a great law school, but also an excellent place to learn, with a true sense of community.”

Justice Kathryn E. Zenoff  ’71, a state appeals court judge in Illinois, says Dean Schizer has successfully managed to include Law School graduates, many of them scattered around the country and the world, in the school’s community. “Dean Schizer has shown an extraordinary ability to relate in a very personal way to those alums working with the Law School,” she says. “Whatever one’s level of involvement, Dean Schizer has made it his business to know who we are, and thus, when we are in touch with him, to communicate on a very personal level, as if we had been seeing him every day.”

Like all law schools dealing with the realities of the contemporary era, Columbia Law School must manage a slackening demand for legal education. “We had an unbelievable spike in application numbers up through the class that just graduated,” Dean Schizer says. “Then we had three years of double-digit declines.

“There’s a way in which we were lucky,” he adds. Since 2004, the dean had been working on reducing the student-faculty ratio, and admitting slightly fewer students helped. Indeed, the student-faculty ratio dropped sharply during the Schizer years, from approximately 13:1 to 7:1.

That was part of a more general focus on student life, according to Colvin. “By reducing the student-teacher ratios and improving the physical plant, he has improved the quality of life for students,” he says. “He has strengthened the career center, with the result that the school has among the highest job-placement records among its peers.”

Zenoff notes that Dean Schizer has been attentive to the needs of students with diverse aspirations. “Especially meaningful to me has been his work in increasing the financial support by the Law School for students and graduates working in government and public interest jobs,” she says. “This allows not just a small cadre of students to enter the public interest field, but a wider range of talented people in the Law School to consider that career path.”

The approach has collateral benefits, Zenoff adds. “It has also made Columbia Law School even more attractive to prospective students who already have an interest in this area of the law,” she says. “We as a society all benefit, as the problems in our world are ever more complex. We need the best-trained lawyers and legal minds to address them.”

Dean Schizer is just 45. I ask him about his plans.

“Will I do another academic administration job?” he asks. “Very possibly. Will it be right away? Ideally, no. Time is on my side there.”

Adam Liptak is the Supreme Court reporter for The New York Times.

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Photographed by Patrick Harbron