A Law Professor, a Famous Seminar, and a Wide Web of Influence

Bruce Gilbert, Columbia U.

Richard Gardner
April 22, 2012

Richard N. Gardner's teaching career at Columbia Law School has spanned nearly six decades and waves of social and political change, both on campus and in the wider world. But at least one constant has remained: On the eve of his retirement in July, he is still teaching "Legal Aspects of U.S. Foreign Economic Policy," the course with which he inaugurated his career at Columbia in 1955.

The seminar, to which students must apply for admission and which is open to students from other Columbia graduate schools, has spawned a global network of lawyers, diplomats, business leaders, and policy makers, many of whom returned to Columbia for a two-day conference in mid-April to honor their mentor.

Four panel discussions focused on issues such as challenges in inter­national law, diplomacy, trade, and finance, featuring experts who had taken Mr. Gardner's seminar. They included James P. Rubin, a former assistant secretary of state, and Edward C. Luck, an assistant secretary general of the United Nations.

Mr. Gardner began teaching at Columbia shortly after returning to the United States from Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He had earned his law degree from Yale but focused on economics while at Oxford, setting the tone for his career. "I always had a view that being interdisciplinary was the future," he says. "I've always told my students that there is no issue today that can be dealt with within the confines of one discipline."

A few government appointments interrupted Mr. Gardner's academic career. The first was a post in the Kennedy administration, as deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs. In later administrations, he served as U.S. ambassador to Italy and Spain. Other law schools, including Harvard, enforce a two-year limit on leaves of absence by professors, and the leeway Columbia allowed him was invaluable, says Mr. Gardner, who is 84 and a full professor. "You can't imagine the degree of security you have being able to leave the university and know that you'll have a job waiting when you return," he says.

Many of Mr. Gardner's students have followed his lead in pursuing wide-ranging careers. Binta Niambi Brown graduated from the law school in 1998 and now focuses on corporate governance as a partner at a large international law firm in New York. But she is also a trustee at Barnard College and is involved in public-policy work and international affairs, thanks in large part to Mr. Gardner's example, she said in between panel discussions on the first day of the conference. "He shows how it's possible to be a true citizen lawyer, which is to say that you can be a zealous advocate for your business clients' interests and do a great job advocating for them, but you can be a public servant and a public advocate at the same time," she says.

Mr. Gardner has stayed in touch with many of his former students, some of whom benefited directly from his wide-ranging network of contacts and connections. For Peter D. Ehrenhaft, a 1957 graduate of the law school, Mr. Gardner's seminar helped pave the way to a long career in public service. Each student in the seminar is required to write a paper, and Mr. Ehrenhaft was absent the day when topics were assigned. Stuck with the then-obscure topic of antidumping and countervailing duties, he produced a work that Mr. Gardner later brought to the attention of officials in the Carter administration, and he ended up serving as a deputy assistant secretary of the treasury.

In his seminars Mr. Gardner asked students to write on notecards their contact information and what they envisioned their careers would be like when they were in their 50s. Colin G. Campbell, a 1960 graduate of the law school, recalled that when he became president of Wesleyan University, Mr. Gardner, who keeps most of the cards, reminded him that he had expressed an ambition to head a liberal-arts college.

Former students of Mr. Gardner's who have gone on to teaching careers of their own say his approach to students has been a model. "The way he takes extra steps to reach out individually to students, I've tried to bring those qualities to my own teaching career," said Curtis J. Milhaupt, who is now on the fac­ulty at the law school and has taught at institutions around the world.

The plaudits are reciprocated. At the conference in his honor, which featured lunchtime speeches by the former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker, Mr. Gardner effortlessly summoned up the names of dozens of former students, many of whom had traveled from overseas for the occasion. He frequently intro­duced young and old alike as "one of my most brilliant students."