LAWRENCE SAGER'S BIOGRAPHY
U.S. News & World Report's top 20:
Great expectations at UT
By MATTHEW TRESAUGUE
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
Editors Note: The following news feature appeared in the Houston Chronicle on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2006.
To read the original story online go to: http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=2006_4232400
AUSTIN—The professors are sipping sparkling wine in honor of their colleague Derek Jinks, a rising star who received tenure – and an implicit promise of a lifetime job – moments before.
Off to the side, Lawrence Sager, the newly appointed dean of the University of Texas at Austin's law school, describes the young scholar eight years removed from earning his law degree at Yale as a key piece of its future. The late-afternoon reception, with fresh fruit and gourmet cheeses and laughter, is Sager's idea.
The small gesture belies the dean's ambitions. Sager aspires to transform a very good law school into a premier law school, and his ability to recruit and retain the best legal minds in the country is critical to that end.
Among those with ties to the law school, expectations are great, considering Sager was one of the chief architects of New York University Law School's remarkable rise in the national rankings during the 1990s.
Now Sager, a pre-eminent constitutional theorist who speaks in paragraphs, sports graying, unkempt curls and drives an old Saab convertible, must persuade other leaders in their field to leave elite schools, such as Harvard and Columbia, for Austin.
That Sager and his wife, Jane Cohen, an expert in family law from Boston University, made the move four years ago and adore their new environs is perhaps his strongest selling point. They are Texans by choice.
"They are powerful salesmen," said Brian Leiter, a professor of law and philosophy at UT-Austin. "They speak from conviction."
Sager, 65, could well have finished his career in his previous comfortable position as a tenured professor at NYU. But he sees a unique opportunity in Austin.
No other law school in the country, he said, has a similar impact on its state than UT-Austin, with countless alumni serving as politicians, judges and lawyers throughout Texas.
The law school he inherited nearly three months ago is widely considered among the nation's top 20. Yet Sager has set out to strengthen the school by raising the caliber of the faculty and students, improving ties with alumni and expanding programs.
"Our ambition is to be one of the best law schools in the country," Sager said. "We're knocking on the door."
To enter the top echelon, the school needs more money to hire distinguished professors and to retain promising faculty, especially in emerging fields such as international law, Sager said.
Bringing in the bucks is a key part of his $340,000-a-year job, considering state funding accounts for less than one-tenth of the 1,300-student law school's budget. He declined to reveal his fundraising goal but described it as ambitious. Others said he hopes to double the school's $168 million endowment.
Law schools at Columbia, NYU and the the University of California at Berkeley already have launched campaigns to raise more than $100 million. All three schools are ranked higher than UT-Austin, which is No. 16, according to U.S. News & World Report.
The publication considers such factors as test scores and spending per student. What hurts UT-Austin is a ratio of 17 students for every faculty member. In contrast, the University of Michigan, which is ranked No. 8, has a student-to-faculty ratio of 14-to-1.
What's more, Yale, which traditionally tops the rankings, is a small school that produces legal scholars. It's a boutique, whereas UT-Austin must be a department store, Sager said.
UT-Austin's starting pay for new faculty, averaging $125,000 annually, is on par with other top schools. But many rivals can afford to offer more generous perks, Sager said.
For example, Steven Ratner, an expert in international law, left UT-Austin two years ago for Michigan in part because its endowment could provide $100,000 a year to support his work.
Still, with Sager leading the faculty-appointments committee, the law school lured corporate-law expert Bernard Black from Stanford University and William Sage, who specializes in health policy, from Columbia.
"UT has always had a solid core of faculty but needs to build on it," said David Leebron, former dean of Columbia Law School and now president of Rice University. "Larry's first, second and third priorities will be the quality of the faculty."
Sager followed a similar strategy at NYU, where he worked in tandem with then-Dean John Sexton on the path to prominence.
Sexton, now NYU's president, is considered by many the most influential American law school dean of the past quarter-century.
While Sexton created a buzz as the self-described "P.T. Barnum of legal education," Sager set a tone of intellectual ambition, identifying talented scholars the school should recruit and burgeoning, new academic programs.
Eventually NYU made lateral hires – tenured professors at peer and higher-ranked institutions – and started competing with crosstown rival Columbia for prized faculty. NYU is now tied with Columbia at No. 4 by U.S. News, up from a spot in the Top 30 a generation ago.
Sexton and Sager share a relentless pursuit of excellence, but their styles could not be more different. Sexton is more emotional, as if speaking from a pulpit, whereas Sager is more cerebral.
"John is a highly effective salesman, and Larry is a highly articulate advocate," Leebron said. "Those are different things."
Sager also possesses a higher profile as a scholar, writing extensively on constitutional law, including a forthcoming book examining religious liberty. He said he is grudgingly leaving his academic work after previously turning down possible deanships and a university presidency.
A few years ago, Sager considered leaving NYU for Boston University, where his wife taught.
Ronald Dworkin, one of the most cited legal scholars of all time, wrote the briefest of recommendation letters.
"Sager is subtle, fast and deep," Dworkin wrote. "You should hire him."
Still, his casual, almost rumpled way inspires familiarity.
"Many academicians can turn you off, but he is the reverse," said San Antonio attorney and former U.S. Rep. Tom Loeffler, who serves on the UT Law School Foundation's governing board. "He is always capable of keeping one's attention."
Students said they also have found Sager to be attentive. Mindful of the lingering perception that the school is unfriendly to black and Hispanic students, he reacted swiftly to a recent "ghetto fabulous" party hosted by some law students.
Sager condemned the party, telling students: "Should the possibility of this sort of conduct present itself, please, please think twice. And then think twice again."
When Sager and Cohen decided to move to Texas, friends and family members predicted they would be back in a year. The weather is too hot and humid, and the politics are too red, the couple heard repeatedly.
Cohen said she was the impetus for the new ZIP code. The couple lived in Cambridge, Mass., while Sager commuted to NYU. The move allowed him to spend more time at home with their twin daughters, now 10 years old.
The couple still had reservations about Texas and asked the university to classify them as visiting professors for one year. The unusual request provided an opportunity to escape.
But Austinites seemed genuine, and Sager and Cohen made friends with ease. They appreciated the collegiality of the law school's faculty and admired the dean, William Powers Jr., who is now president of the university.
In contrast, Cambridge, known as the hub of higher education, "is a socially brittle environment because people are afraid you will find out they are not worthy," Sager said.
His Austin is grocery shopping at Central Market, dinner parties with artists, musicians and lawmakers, and a quirky house above Lake Austin. Cohen is known to knock on the doors of strangers and ask about the architecture of their homes.
Coincidentally, both Sager and Powers grew up in California. But Powers, with his rugged looks and gravelly voice, comes across as Texan from birth.
"I remember being taken aback the first time I heard Bill say, 'All y'all' in the hallway," Cohen said, smiling. "He can go native, and it's never going to happen with us."
Cohen said she occasionally asks her husband whether he would leave the law school for another deanship or a university presidency. His response: "We're here for the duration."
Dan Rodriguez noticed the move from his perch as dean of the University of San Diego's law school. He knew Sager by reputation, and the hiring indicated a school on the rise.
For his next move, Rodriguez wanted a first-rate, comprehensive public law school – someplace like Berkeley, where he taught for a decade – with the risk-taking spirit of the smaller, private USD.
His short list included Duke, Vanderbilt and USC. He had some concerns about Texas. But Rodriguez, a native Californian who specializes in state and local law, chose UT-Austin after spending six weeks on campus last spring as a visiting professor.
He will start in September.
The deal clincher: Sager and Cohen. Rodriguez and his wife, Leslie Oster, grew close to the couple during their stay.
One evening, the foursome walked through a farmers' market in Austin, and seemingly everyone knew Sager and Cohen.
"We're thinking, either Austin is the smallest town in the country, or they had been here for 30 years, and neither is true," Rodriguez recalled. "They are like the mayors of the town. If they could come from an established place and make a home so quickly, that was something to aspire to."