The front room of a newly renovated 1830s townhouse was filled to overflowing on December 3 as the new Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law & Justice celebrated its official launch in its home at 22 Washington Square North. Founded in the spirit of other institutes of advanced study—the most famous of which are located in Berlin, at Stanford University, and near Princeton University—the Straus Institute supports high-level research and scholarship without requiring teaching commitments of its fellows.

It is a concept that University Professor Joseph Weiler, Joseph Straus Professor of Law and director of the Straus Institute, called “study for the sake of study” in his remarks for the occasion. Speaking of the benefactors who funded the new institute—Daniel Straus ’81, a member of the Law School’s board of trustees, and his wife, Joyce Straus—Weiler said they “have donated to the ivory tower in the best sense of the words ‘ivory tower,’ giving the possibility for fertile, creative, great minds to come from all over the world to share an intellectual and academic mission to think hard about issues of law and justice. My belief is that when creative and inspired minds think about law and justice…the world will be a better place.”

Dean Richard Revesz spoke to the significance of the Straus Institute’s mission. “There are institutions of advanced study in a number of disciplines…but there’s never been an institute for advanced study that focuses on law and its intersection with the humanities and social sciences,” he said. “This is it…. I’m confident that…we’ll look back on this 10 years from now, and [launching the institute] will be one of the most significant things that any of us have done.”

Standing next to a life-size sculpture of Abraham by the Slovenian artist Bostjan Novak, Nancy Barton, chair of the Department of Art and Art Professions at NYU’s Steinhardt School and curator of the Straus Institute’s building, talked about the importance of inspiring the institute’s visiting scholars by surrounding them with art: “Art, I think, is one of the things that shows us from the inside of a person how these great forces of history wash over us and change us as individuals. So I hope that in some small part the art in this institute will help people to think in this way.”

NYU President John Sexton, dean emeritus and Benjamin F. Butler Professor of Law, captured the significance of the moment in a succinct statement: “When important things like this happen you need, as a human, to sacramentalize it.” Accordingly, Daniel Straus affixed a mezuzah inside the townhouse at the conclusion of Sexton’s remarks before speaking himself. “The gift is really my acknowledgment of a personal debt,” said Straus, who had funded the Straus Institute in honor of his late parents, Joseph Straus ’37 (LL.M. ’43) and Gwendolyn Straus. “Joyce and I have enjoyed so many good things and wonderful accomplishments that we believe could only have been made possible because of the fact that I was fortunate enough to go to the Law School,  graduate from the Law School, and have doors open to me because of that.” Straus added, “One of the things that I believe makes the Law School unique as compared to others is it’s progressive enough to allow for the innovation of new ideas like this institute.”

Following the ceremony at 22 Washington Square North, which also houses the Tikvah Center for Law & Jewish Civilization, attendees crossed Washington Square Park to Vanderbilt Hall for a fireside chat with Weiler, 1998 Nobel laureate and Professor Amartya Sen of Harvard University, and several Straus Fellows. In a wide-ranging conversation, Weiler and Sen discussed Sen’s formative years and influences in India and England before the participants turned to subjects such as how to measure people’s well-being and the articulation of a grand theory of justice. The evening concluded with the launch of Climate Finance, a new book edited by NYU Law professors Richard Stewart and Benedict Kingsbury, both inaugural Straus Fellows.


Watch the complete recording of the fireside chat with Amartya Sen (1 hr, 54 min):

Posted on December 4, 2009