preLaw - Winter 2011 - 14
An out-of-the-box dean
David Van Zandt’s 15-year tenure as dean at Northwestern came to an end in December, but not before he brought about creative programs that helped to change legal education. BY REBECCA LARSEN
hen David Van Zandt became dean of the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago in 1995, it was not uncommon for a student to visit him and announce: “I have this problem and I pay $19,000 to go to school here; you’re the dean and you should fix it.” Now, he says, it’s more likely that a group of students will walk into his office together to say: “We see a problem here and we want to make this a better place, and here is our plan for fixing the situation.” It’s not that law school students have changed that much over the years, he said. What has changed is how Northwestern selects its students. “The culture here has changed because we’ve become supportive of selecting mature people who, for the most part, have worked for a couple of years before they come here,” he said. “We choose applicants who are more mature and who understand the way the world works. We’re known for that.” That type of student, he said, is better able to work in teams and study groups and to share knowledge with fellow students – the way that workers do on the job. For Van Zandt, this is just one of many achievements over a 15-year career that brought him respect and admiration from his colleagues for his creativity and ability to think outside of the box. The National Jurist named him one of the most influential people in legal education in 2009 for being “a true iconoclast who goes against the grain in a good way.” But Van Zandt has left the legal profession. The 57-year-old took over as president of The New School, a university in New York City this year. But he left behind a school that is in great shape and has helped shape the future of legal education. The school’s applicant screening process has also helped it with job placement suc14
photo by peter barreras
David Van Zandt stepped down as dean of Northwestern University School of Law at the end of December to become president of The New School in New York City.
cess. The school interviews 80 percent of the 5,000 applicants that it receives. “We are looking for people with excellent communication skills,” Van Zandt said. “We basically screen out what might be called ‘the jerks.’” The revised selection criteria have made Northwestern grads a good fit for the marketplace. The school’s placement numbers at top law firms are outstanding, he said.
Van Zandt also takes credit for calming a contentious political atmosphere at the law school by changing the makeup of the student body. “It used to be more negative and difficult, highly politicized, left versus right,” he said. “But we’ve gotten students to accept the view that this is a place where you learn, but you must be respectful of those with whom you don’t agree.”