In January, NYU announced that Evan Chesler ’75 would become the new chair of the University Board of Trustees on September 1. A preeminent litigator, Chesler has served as presiding partner and then chair at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. His commitment to NYU Law runs deep: he has been a member of the Law School’s Board of Trustees since 2006, co-teaches Advanced Trial Simulation, and is president of the Board of Advisors of the Institute of Judicial Administration. NYU Law Magazine spoke to Chesler during one of his visits to Vanderbilt Hall, where he shared his thoughts on leadership, culture wars, and how lawyers are “first responders.”
What’s your advice for young lawyers who want to learn about leadership?
Well, you have to pursue opportunities. And that’s true not only of learning about leadership but about most things to progress your career. You have to look for opportunities that will put you in a position where you will learn from leaders and ultimately practice the art of leadership, if that’s a proper description.
If you look at the headlines, education seems to be increasingly caught up in the crosshairs of today’s culture wars. How should NYU navigate in this environment?
I think NYU needs to navigate it by never losing sight of what its basic values are and being true to those values. I don’t think it is appropriate for any institution—and certainly not for this institution—to walk away from its values because someone has a megaphone that has a loud noise associated with it.
On any side of an issue, it’s important to allow the debate to happen. Short of hate speech—I don’t think hate speech has a place in our society generally, including universities—it ought to be one of the values of the institution to be a place where people can engage on issues and say things to one another that are true to their own values and true to their views.
After 9/11, you taught a class at the College of Arts & Science, Constitutional Rights in Times of National Crisis. Today a lot of people have concerns that our democracy is in a crisis. Do you share that concern and do you have any thoughts on how to address it?
One thing I do know is that when we’re in this sort of situation, the lawyers are the first responders. One example is the whole election denial episode, during the time when the new president had not yet been inaugurated and there was all that litigation. All of those cases were unsuccessful, and many were decided by judges appointed by Republican presidents.
As a lawyer, I’m very proud of that fact. I’m proud of the system, which is unlike what goes on in almost every place else in the world. The allegiance to the rule of law as opposed to the allegiance to a party or a particular political philosophy is a hallmark of what happens in our justice system.
That’s why I think places like the building we’re sitting in [Vanderbilt Hall] are so important. To be producing new young lawyers who are committed to that, who are going to be able to spend the next half century living those values, I think that’s critical.
How do you have time for all the things you’re involved in?
First, I have a wonderful wife who is very generous in the view that I should do what makes me happy. Now, being with my family makes me happy too, and that means you have to be very efficient with the use of your time, and I am. Also—and this is probably a failing that I should be embarrassed about, but I don’t have any hobbies. So all of my time is devoted to family and my professional activities. When I get up in the morning, I exercise, I go off to whatever I have to do for the day, and I’m engaged in it because I spend my time doing things I like. I’m not taking on this role as chair of the University board because somebody’s forcing me to do it or I have some desire to burnish my résumé or anything like that. I’m doing it because I love the place and I want to serve it. And so when you’re doing something you love, it’s not a job.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Posted on September 11, 2023