Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad speaks at convocation

During his convocation speech on May 15, Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations, addressed the 1,035 new J.D.s, LL.M.s, J.S.D.s, and holders of advanced certificates in law and business, reminding all the members of the NYU Law Class of 2009 of their responsibility. “You are now custodians of the rule of law,” Khalilzad said. “Living in a modern Western democracy, it can be easy to forget just what this means, and more importantly, what its absence means.... I have come to believe that the rule of law, which in its contemporary form is closely associated with the United States of America, is the world’s most powerful political idea.”

Khalilzad was struck by the American culture of democratic spirit and fairness when he spent time in a small California farming town as a teenage exchange student from Afghanistan. A society that respected the rules was a revelation to him, he said, used as he was to the idea of buying a ticket to a sporting event or concert with the possibility of being ejected from his seat in favor of a higher-ranking individual. In places where women and minorities are denied equality and young people lack chances for merit-based advancement, Khalilzad said, lawyers can offer recourse.

Khalilzad, who, according to the New York Times, could assume a powerful, unelected position inside the Afghan government under a plan he is reportedly discussing with President Hamid Karzai, helped create new constitutions in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where multiple factions struggled to assert their voices. “All sides learned that one can do battle over important issues on the level of ideas and maneuvering through argument, lobbying, bargaining, and other such means, as an alternative to violence," he said. "In both cases the legal process, the negotiations, encouraged the start of a political reconciliation.”

Building the rule of law is a slow process, Khalilzad admitted, pointing out that it has taken centuries in the West. “Solutions in other countries cannot just replicate those that have worked here, and instead must be tailored to their own political circumstances, traditions, and cultures. However, I firmly believe that the aspiration for the rule of law, the desire for justice, accountability, and due process, is universal.”

Dean Richard Revesz also spoke to the new graduates, enumerating the wide range of impressive accomplishments of students just earning their degrees, as well as the achievements of alumni and faculty: “Your NYU Law education has shown you—through your work with faculty, the clinics, and centers, and your exposure to alumni who are teachers, practitioners, judges, and policymakers—that there is more than one way to make an impact on law, on policy, on business, on communities, and on the lives of individual clients.” Reflecting appreciation for that education, Lauren Burke ’09, chair of the Class of 2009 Graduation Gift Committee, and committee member Ivan Chanis Barahona (LL.M. ’09) presented the class’s $62,700 gift to Law School Board of Trustees Chair Anthony Welters ’77 and Lester Pollack ’57, chair emeritus.

J.D. class speaker Ian Marcus Amelkin ’09, the first person in his family to earn a professional degree, used the metaphor of climbing a water tower, with a ladder that must be climbed and a new and enlightening view at the top, to describe his Law School experience: “Now we’re looking out into the world and we can plot the direction and we can choose the way we want to walk. All around us is field, and we have agency and power to go out into it.” Urging his fellow classmates to pursue happiness as well as vocational success, Amelkin stressed the importance of ordinary, even potentially frustrating moments: “We can choose to look for the good in those moments and to focus on the joy instead of succumbing to feeling negative about modern life or our chosen profession, our path, our choices.”

Matthildi Chatzipanagiotou (LL.M. ’09), speaking on behalf of the LL.M. class, recalled the misgivings she felt when embarking on her journey from Greece to America to attend NYU. She overcame that trepidation when she remembered her grandmother’s telling her that “knowledge defeats fear.” Recalling the many varied experiences she’d had in her LL.M. year, including everything from the intellectual rigors of law school to museums to Brazilian music to the excitement of the 2008 presidential election, Chatzipanagiotou said, “NYU has truly been the greatest adventure of my life so far. Its brilliant academic environment, driven by the emphasis on innovation, has pushed us hard to ask the right questions more than to give the right answers.”