Former Law School Dean and University President John Sexton sits down with Dean Troy McKenzie ’00 to talk about what McKenzie learned in his first year as dean, our shared “duty to hope,” and what sets NYU Law apart.
Sexton: My dean, my dean.
McKenzie: Mr. President.
Sexton: It’s been a year or so since you became our dean, to the acclaim of all of us.… Thank you for loving this place so much. And thank you for embracing it in a way that I know demands a lot of sacrifice. So are you having fun?
McKenzie: This is a fun job. It’s a big job. It’s a busy job. It’s a demanding job. But it is also a fun job. And the year flew by. I was surprised at how quickly it has gone by. And that to me is always a sign that I’m on the right path, doing the right thing, when time just flies by.
What Makes NYU Law Different
Sexton: What would you say are the assets of the Law School that that give it a singular capacity, a differentiating principle on which you would like to build?
McKenzie: I think this faculty is the best collection of minds in the legal academy in this country. We get amazing students. We are competing with the tippy-top of law school hierarchy when it comes to getting students to come to NYU. And we have alumni, others who interact with the law school, who love the place and are very supportive. So you piece all that together, and good things are going to happen.
But that’s not enough. As I’ve thought about it, as a student and then as a faculty member and now as dean, one of the things that distinguishes this place is that it is not siloed. This is a large institution in a large university and a large city that nevertheless manages to operate like a small, interactive intellectual and academic community.
This way of collecting talent and then having the talent interact with each other on the faculty level, I think, has made NYU distinctive and is an extraordinary resource, because that is a bone-deep cultural infrastructure of the place. It is an asset above and beyond. It is gestalt theory in action. The whole then becomes greater than the sum of the parts.
And then finally, to steal a phrase from a very, very, very wise man, we have locational endowment. I don’t know if you ever met the person who came up with that one, but he knows what he’s talking about. Being in this place is a huge asset, not just because we’re in a large city with a growing and complicated economy, with lots of lawyers, with lots of people in policy and finance and the like, but because so many people from around the world pass through New York—because of NYU, because of the university, but because of the city—and we are not shy about taking advantage of that. And that is also part of the DNA of the law school.
Watch: Sexton and McKenzie on the value of the immigrant experience
Sexton: Is there a particular element of the story—the mythos in the best sense of the word, the lived experience of NYU—that you want to begin to shape in the story you tell to the incoming first-year students?
McKenzie: As an experimental thing at Orientation, last September I talked to the incoming 1Ls about the importance of disagreement. That you’re in law school, in a way you’re entering a profession that is in the business of disagreement. That good lawyers can identify disagreement, can sharpen disagreement, and great lawyers soften disagreement and resolve disagreement. And that from the moment you walk in to NYU Law school, you need to practice being a good lawyer and strive towards being a great lawyer.
Behind that is a concern about students coming to the Law School already on a team, already with a set of commitments—
Sexton: Of deep zeal.
McKenzie: Purpose, zeal, commitments are great—but part of what happens when you’re in law school is that you should be stretched and challenged, and you should stretch and challenge your colleagues as well. That’s part of the learning process.
As you’re learning, you’re learning from everyone else—great faculty, great community, a great university. You’re going to learn from all of that, but you also learn from being in conversation with people who are in the classroom with you, walking in the halls with you, breaking bread with you. And that is also an attitudinal thing that I want to make sure is emphasized. And I’m trying to find ways of maybe being more direct about it.
And the reason I say that is there is a shift at the Law School, which I didn’t really appreciate until starting this job. When I was a student here, I went straight from college to law school. That was much more common 25 years ago. Today, it’s a diminishing fraction of the class that goes straight from college to law school. And so we get phenomenal students who have these great experiences before they get to law school. And the potential downside is that they are a little bit older, a little bit more formed and then—
Sexton: Locked in.
McKenzie: Locked in. So that is a piece of community and culture that I think is going to take time to make sure we don’t go sideways on. And I’m trying to find ways of building in other pieces of what we do here so that that message gets reinforced and reiterated as many different ways as possible—again, without being heavy handed or without suggesting that it’s wrong to have strong views and strong commitments, since that’s not wrong at all. That’s great.
Watch: Sexton and McKenzie talk about learning to listen to voices we're unaccustomed to hearing.
A Sense of Vocation
Sexton: How would you say your viewpoint on the Law School and some of these things you’ve been discussing has changed and how has it has stayed the same, since you were a student?
McKenzie: That’s a hard question, because on the one hand, I fell in love with this place when I came here as a student, and that has sustained the whole way through. It really has been a constant. At the same time, when I started here as a student, I remember this sense of being a little overwhelmed, that this was a big place in a big city with a lot going on, too much going on for me to take in all at the same time.
I think what I didn’t appreciate then that I appreciate now is how much thought, how much work goes into curating an experience for students here. You take it for granted when you’re a student that you have great professors who care, who are working as hard as they can to communicate difficult concepts to you, who are willing to see you in office hours, break bread with you over lunch. You take for granted that there is a Career Services Office or Public Interest Law Center that has an open door that’s willing to work with you once, twice, three, four, five, 20 times to find you the right job and the right location, using your skills to the utmost. So that I see differently because I now know what kind of effort goes into all of that. And it’s heartening to know that there are so many people who are working so hard to make the student experience as wonderful as it is and as it was when I was a student.
Sexton: I remember calling Cheryl Mills as the Clinton administration was winding down and telling her she had no future as a lawyer. She disagreed—every law firm in the country was trying to hire her. And I said, “Come to NYU. Be part of the dream. You’ll make a lot less. You’ll feel good about yourself.”
Now you’d be welcome in any law firm in the country. Why did you make the choice to be here, and even as dean, why do you continue to make the choice? Why do you think so many of our colleagues make the choices?
McKenzie: So the story I have told myself, which may or may not be an accurate story about my own choice, is that I made that choice in my first year at NYU because at about, I don’t know, maybe a month or two into the first year, I realized that my professors really seemed to love what they were doing. I had Mark Geistfeld for Torts, who had just gotten tenure, Liam Murphy for Contracts and Helen Hershkoff for Civil Procedure, who were still on the tenure track. I had Frank Upham for Property. I had Paul Chevigny for Criminal Law and I had Aderson Francois, who is now at Georgetown, as my Lawyering professor. I look back now on that menu of extraordinary teaching and mentoring talent, and I know why I thought these folks have the best job in the world. They loved what they’re doing, and it was challenging, it was interesting, and they really, really, really wanted to do this. That stuck with me.
So when I clerked and then went into practice, I always had that in the back of my head—that sense of joy and purpose that I saw on the faces of really all of my professors when I was a student here. And that’s what drew me back. The sense that coming to NYU, not just entering the academy, but coming to NYU, was really about having a sense of joy and purpose in what you do. You could do lots of other things to, you know, to make a living that are perfectly honorable, that use the brain, the heart. But that being here was a special thing and something that you would want to dedicate yourself to in a vocational sense.
Sexton: And we carry that word vocation, for you and me, it carries a kind of moral and sacred quality to it.
McKenzie: That’s right. It’s not the thing you happen to do just to make a living. Vocation is really above and beyond that.
Sexton: And becomes part of your self-definition.
Sexton:. And would you agree that that now permeates this building in the faculty that we have?
McKenzie: There’s an understanding that if you are here, you have signed on in an implicit way to an understanding about what it means to be here and what the expectations are about being in this community, and that’s something I haven’t had to fight to change or shift. And that that’s been one of the gratifying parts of stepping into this role.
Watch: The Deans discuss the "is" versus the "ought" of law.
Hope and the Law
Watch: The two discuss the duty not to give in to despair.
McKenzie: So I want to ask you a couple of questions, John. Turn the tables on you.
Sexton: There is a God. It’s all about definition. So let’s get that one off the table.
McKenzie: Nothing as profound. You were dean here for 14 years. 13? 14 years.
Sexton: There was one year where I was in both positions, and it happened to be the year of September the 11th.
McKenzie: Then you went on to be president of the University, and now you are back on the faculty here at the Law School. And before that, before you were a faculty member in the first instance of the Law School, you were a later-in-life-than-had-been-the-norm-at-the-time law student, you clerked at the Supreme Court and the DC Circuit, you had been a famous debate coach, you had run a couple of businesses, gotten a PhD in religion. You’d done a lot.
Sexton: And sinned a lot.
McKenzie: But I want you to focus on your time as dean, because still for us here, we think of you as, in a way, definitional of NYU the Law School. How do you want people to think of your time as dean?
Sexton: Well, first, I would emphasize that I may have been a catalyst, but what was accomplished in the 14 years when I was dean of the Law School was the work of a great many people, and not by delegation. They were part of the creative process as much as I was. I was, I think, useful to tell a story and bind a community with a story, a mythos that was believable and deep. And I also was willing to play a role which I gave myself, which was the P. T. Barnum of legal education. Pam Gann of Duke once introduced me by saying, “Why do we put up with him?” And I was blessed.
McKenzie: The answer is, we need the eggs. That’s the answer.
Sexton: I was blessed with the love of [my wife] Lisa and great love in my family. So I was very willing to take, you know, the barbs—most of them friendly. So I would just want to emphasize that what happened during my time as dean was very much a collective effort.
I hope I would be remembered for creating a community at NYU. “Yeah, he’s the guy that made us a family.” In the early years, I was derided for using that term.
I knew we had made progress on the agenda of creating a community was just before you came as a student. There’s a man named Bernard Petrie, and I had met him and brought him in and I said, “Let’s take a walk around.” He stopped eight students in different parts of a complete tour, you know, including D’Agostino, now over to what was then called Mercer—it’s now Hayden. And he asked a question: “Summarize this place to me in one word.” And seven of the eight said “community” or “family.”
Sexton: And I said, “I think it’s taking.” And I think that’s the way we think of ourselves today. And everything else kind of follows from that.
Watch: Sexton talks about the importance of community at the Law School.
This interview has been condensed and edited. Posted September 11, 2023