If New York University Law School dean Richard Revesz were to squeal with
glee, it would be the onomatopoeic form of the e-mail he sent to his faculty
on Monday morning.
“I am very pleased to share the fabulous news that Professor Jeremy Waldron
has accepted our tenured offer and will join us in Fall 2006,” he wrote.
Then came the kicker: “Jeremy is currently a University Professor and
Professor of Law at Columbia.”
He is also the third Columbia Law School professor to announce his intention
to join N.Y.U.’s faculty in the past year.
The three moves would seem to be a break in the standoff between the two law
schools that has existed since the late 1980’s, when two law professors
defected in the opposite direction—from N.Y.U. to Columbia.
In the intervening years, the schools have become an academic anomaly:
ultra-competitive law schools essentially tied in the rankings (U.S. News
and World Report has Columbia and N.Y.U. locked as the fourth- and
fifth-best, respectively, in the country) and located in the same city. The
faculty at Columbia often considers N.Y.U. faculty members academic second
cousins, and vice versa. They co-teach classes and occasionally “visit” at
one another’s campuses. But they never stay.
In part, that’s because there’s very little impetus to move, since so much
about teaching at the two schools is the same. Now, the threshold for drawing
professors from one school to another is being tested—and many New Yorkers
see it as an aggressive move that has upset the equilibrium between the two
Mr. Waldron was a big coup: He’s one of the foremost legal and political
philosophers in the world right now. Last month, labor and employment-law
professor Cynthia Estlund accepted an N.Y.U. offer. Over the summer, her
husband, civil-procedure and voting-rights expert Samuel Issacharoff, joined
In a word—fabulous!
But Mr. Waldron was really N.Y.U.’s white whale. He’s a Goliath in legal
philosophy, which has emerged as one of N.Y.U.’s marquee fields—one that
Columbia had dominated over a long history dating back to the 1930’s.
Mr. Waldron said that he moved because he wanted to work closely with
N.Y.U.’s legal philosophers—including the titan of the field, 73-year-old
Ronald Dworkin. Along with the eminent political philosopher Thomas Nagel, Mr.
Dworkin holds court every Thursday afternoon in the fall at the Colloquium in
Legal, Political and Social Philosophy, where the two dissect a (quaking)
Mr. Waldron is their obvious successor. (“It’s a little bit silly. Dworkin
is perfectly active, isn’t he? He doesn’t need any sort of heir,”
responded Mr. Waldron.)
But unlike Mr. Dworkin, whose influence is felt everywhere but seldom seen
outside of academia, Mr. Waldron has a broad public persona. He writes book
reviews and letters to the editor in The New York Times, debates John
Yoo on torture. Just last year, Columbia recognized his popularity when it
appointed him to serve as a University Professor, a high honor that allows him
to teach across disciplines in various schools within the university.
Faculty members at Columbia were quick to characterize the recent departures
as isolated events related to individual professors’ preferences.
“People make decisions for personal reasons, and it’s the kind of
environment where people move on,” said David Schizer, the dean of
Columbia’s law school. “We have such an amazing faculty, and one sign of
that is that people have other options.”
But for the faculty at N.Y.U., the three hires are also cited as evidence of a
tipping point. It’s about superiority over—not parity with—Columbia Law,
part of an Ivy League university whose prestige is a birthright. As recently
as 2004, the word was that the N.Y.U. Law School was on the rocks, having lost
several important scholars. But two years later, the story is very different.
“After Monday, I think there will be a little bit of a glow,” said
Professor Marcel Kahan on the Friday before the Waldron announcement was made
public. Mr. Kahan emphasized that it was the infusion of the Columbia émigré’s
talents into the N.Y.U. mix that made the news noteworthy. But he allowed
himself this: “They will have a hard time maintaining that they are better
than we are.”
“People are mostly interested in what intellectual community will be most
supportive of their work,” Mr. Revesz said. “I think we have a great
intellectual community, and I’m very pleased that they’ve recognized
Nor could he resist a dig at his uptown rival.
“I think any objective observer would say that we now have, sort of across
the board, a faculty that is stronger in many, many more areas, and that is
And if a genteel aura surrounds the comings and goings of these august lawmen,
there was still the faint hint of an old-fashioned duel in the air.
Of course, in the era of academic free agency, N.Y.U. had better watch its
“Maybe there will be more,” said Mr. Schizer, the Columbia law dean, about
the moves between his school and N.Y.U. “Going forward, we certainly have
our eye on a couple of people. The atmosphere now is that people are becoming
“It makes it fun to be a dean,” he added. “There are more opportunities
to hire really great people.”
The Long Détente
At one time, it might have been thought fun to be the dean of Columbia Law
because it consistently beat N.Y.U. in the rankings. Columbia has dominated on
that score since its founding in 1858, at times spoken of in the same breath
as the Harvard and Yale law schools.
While N.Y.U. Law is 23 years older, it has only been in recent decades that
the school’s reputation put it out of the class of local law schools
catering to commuter students.
That had already begun to change by 1988—the year John Sexton assumed the
deanship of the law school: N.Y.U. had climbed up the ranks to the No. 9 slot
the previous year.
Mr. Sexton compounded the school’s prestige by luring faculty from highly
regarded schools like the University of Michigan and the University of
Things were changing in New York: It was suddenly becoming a desirable place
to live, and thanks to a unique financial arrangement the law school had
developed with the larger university, it could offer housing—some of it
quite luxurious—in the school’s increasingly attractive Greenwich Village
The school developed a buzzy momentum. So it was propelled into the upper
echelon of what one faculty member termed “high-end legal education.”
But, according to a source, there was initially a price to be paid for Mr.
Sexton’s ascent: Professor David Leebron left for Columbia the following
year. The two had been rivals since their days on the Harvard Law Review.
A second faculty member, Jeffrey Gordon, left in 1988 to run a center on law
and economic studies at Columbia, which was building a stronger corporate and
mergers-and-acquisitions faculty at the time.
“John Sexton told me that he had the opportunity to poach [from Columbia],
but that he decided not to poach,” said Jules Coleman, a law professor at
Yale who is close to Mr. Sexton.
In 1996, Mr. Leebron became the dean at Columbia. One senior professor said he
had heard that the longtime competitors had an understanding not to recruit
aggressively from each other’s schools.
“I think the assumption was that it would be too upsetting,” said the
source, who didn’t want to be identified because he could not assert it as
fact. “It would make relationships between the two schools unsettled … and
unfriendly.” The agreement “would be a way of saying … ‘Let’s have
Mr. Sexton and Mr. Leebron did not respond to requests for comment made
through their spokesmen. Other knowledgeable sources denied that there had
ever been an agreement, even an informal one. They said that the reason there
had been no raiding wasn’t because the schools weren’t interested. (Not to
mention the potential anti-trust concerns—paging Alfred Taubman!) They were
interested, and both deans made overtures. But they may not have needed an
agreement, since no one wanted to move badly enough.
Even so, Columbia and N.Y.U. regularly competed both for entry-level
candidates and lateral hires from outside New York. In 1999, for the first
time, N.Y.U. placed one notch above Columbia in the U.S. News and World
Report pecking order, a feat they repeated in 2000.
In 2002, Mr. Sexton was promoted to university president, and Mr. Revesz, an
environmental-law scholar, succeeded him as dean. Mr. Leebron announced in
December 2003 that he was stepping down to run Rice University.
So the old standoff was at an end. Meanwhile, the search for a dean to replace
Mr. Leebron was roiling the waters at Columbia.
Many law schools follow a dean-search model in which the university president
makes an appointment in consultation with a committee that includes some
faculty members from the law school and other faculty members outside it.
Columbia follows what is known as an open or “faculty democracy” model.
The process is akin to a popular election, with professors voting among
candidates for the job.
Columbia professors who threw their hats in the ring were thus subjected to
the public scrutiny of their peers—an uncommon and unwelcome development for
law dons well into their tenured professorships.
“Everyone was eligible to vote, and so everyone was eligible to be lobbied
… You wanted your candidate to do well, so you ended up saying things that
were negative about other candidates,” said one person close to the
situation, who requested anonymity because he did not want to generate
publicity for the news. “We had a really, really good result, [but] the
process itself generated a lot of frustration and ill will on the faculty.”
Among the candidates were Mr. Issacharoff and Carol Sanger, a family-law and
feminist legal scholar who is Mr. Waldron’s longtime companion. The faculty
chose a 35-year-old whippersnapper and tax scholar, David Schizer, for the
Mr. Issacharoff, a revered teacher who had expressed strong views about the
kind of intellectual heavyweight needed to direct the school, visited at N.Y.U.
the following year, through an arrangement he had made before the deanship
shake-up. He never returned to Columbia.
“This is the last reverberation of the dean-search process we had,” said The
Observer’s source. “The people who left were the people who were most
closely affected by the dean search.”
So why didn’t all the moves happen immediately after the election of Mr.
Schizer? And if Mr. Waldron feels that Ms. Sanger was mistreated, then why is
“People need to consider their positions very carefully; they’re not
required to act precipitously,” said Mr. Waldron, N.Y.U.’s latest
acquisition. Ms. Sanger declined to comment. (Mr. Waldron has an outstanding
offer on the table from Harvard, which has also made Ms. Sanger a visiting
Mr. Issacharoff wouldn’t comment on whether the circumstances of the dean
search were the catalyst for his move to N.Y.U.
“People make decisions for many reasons,” he said, pointing to a cohort of
scholars at the school working in his fields of complex litigation, governing
and the political process. “I accepted at N.Y.U. because I liked the fit
He added, “As I told David Schizer, I said ‘this is not on your watch.
This is because of things that have been a source of frustration for me at
Columbia for a long time.’”
“I think that would be a very simplistic way of describing what motivated me
or anybody to move. It’s bound to be more complicated than that, isn’t
it?” Ms. Estlund said when presented with the hypothesis that she had left
as a result of the bloody dean search. “These are just always personal and
idiosyncratic decisions. I think Columbia is a great place.”
And not everyone associated with the dean search was left wounded. Robert
Scott, a professor and former dean of the University of Virginia Law School,
was a finalist along with Mr. Schizer for the Columbia deanship, until he
withdrew near the end of the process.
Now he and his wife Elizabeth, who is also a professor, are joining the
Columbia faculty in July.
Fabulous. But when will the N.Y.U. professors start signing up?