Law-School Dean Takes On Urban Challenge

Juliana Thomas

Richard L. Revesz
March 18, 2013

When Richard L. Revesz, dean of New York University Law School, steps down this May after more than a decade at his post, he'll move into a role that allows him to pursue a longtime passion of his: the environment.

A professor of law, Mr. Revesz, 54, will lead NYU's recently created Marron Institute on Cities and the Urban Environment. For the first time in history, more than half the world's population is living in cities. The institute's work will focus on those urban centers, what makes them tick, and what might make them tick better.

Mr. Revesz, who specializes in environmental law and regulation, will bring to his new role both his scholarly interest and, colleagues say, a talent for working with people. "I'm really interested in the ability we have to set the urban agenda on a positive course," Mr. Revesz says. "If it's done right, it will make an enormous difference in terms of making our lives more livable, more sustainable, and more equitable."

With a $40-million donation from Donald B. Marron, an entrepreneur and NYU trustee, the institute will bring together disciplines including the applied sciences, design, and law. Mr. Marron and Mr. Revesz expect the research to benefit both the institute's hometown and developed and developing cities around the globe. One research proposal that looks at New York after Hurricane Sandywould bring together physical scientists and experts in government and regulatory policy to study how coastal cities should rebuild or adapt after natural disasters.

"Most of the great ideas that are created come from cities," Mr. Marron says. "And cities are now at a crucial time."

Mr. Revesz, who has taught at the law school since 1985 and led it since 2002, feels the same sense of urgency in studying urban centers and the environment. In college he deferred his Yale Law School acceptance to earn a master's degree in environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He considers urban air pollution and the use of sustainable resources to be serious issues amid growing urbanization.

The breadth of the institute's research makes it stand out among urban-studies centers, Mr. Revesz says. But that presents complications for its leader.

"The challenge is to realize the synergy that exists," he says. "People tend not to collaborate very broadly across their disciplines. The question is how to create incentives and excitement so that people start doing that more."

Kenji Yoshino, a professor of law whom Mr. Revesz recruited from Yale University, says Mr. Revesz's strong people skills helped him hire a variety of talented professors from other law schools, a feat regarded as one of his greatest accomplishments.

"His success as dean of the Law School augurs well for the Marron Institute," NYU's president, John Sexton, said in an e-mail. "He'll bring the same energy, dedication, analytic approach, and imagination" to the new project.

Being able to play a role in framing the issues around the urban environment excites Mr. Revesz.

"Many of the big cities that will be around at the end of the century haven't been built yet," he says. "If we get this right, we'll be much better off."