In the almost 40 years since he joined the Rutgers School of Law–Newark faculty, Paul L. Tractenberg, Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor and Alfred C. Clapp Distinguished Public Service Professor of Law, has taught and mentored thousands of students; helped introduce interdisciplinary scholarship to the law school; co-directed well-respected initiatives on advancing education quality; been a key participant in landmark litigation; written and lectured extensively; consulted for national, regional, and state organizations and agencies; and, in his spare time, pursued a passion for long-distance bicycling.
|As one of his Centennial Seminar students looks on, Professor Paul Tractenberg discusses that day’s special seminar program on “Celebrating a 100-Year Tradition of Diversity: Reflections on Its Success” with (l-r) Emerita Professor Annamay Sheppard ’58; and program speakers Ann Lesk ’77, partner in Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP; Alberto Rivas ’85, now a Superior Court judge and at the time a member of Lite DePalma Greenberg & Rivas, LLC; and Yvonne Smith Segars ’84, New Jersey Public Defender.|
Given those experiences, at age 71 Tractenberg might have been expected to scale back his academic activities, leisurely reflect on the successes of the past four decades, and enjoy easy rides through the parks near his Essex County home. Instead, during the 2008-2009 academic year, in addition to his teaching obligations and committee work, he chose to play a leading role both in assuring that the law school’s Centennial celebration fully highlighted some of its signature accomplishments and in memorializing them in two upcoming books. To his responsibilities as co-director of the interdisciplinary Institute on Education Law and Policy, he added co-directorship of the Newark Schools Research Collaborative. Asked to serve on the Council on Educational Equity and Diversity, a new advisory group convened by the state Department of Education, the law professor described by the New Jersey Law Journal as “New Jersey’s education law dean” readily agreed. Concerned about the fiscal problems facing the state and, by extension, the law school, he offered to compile data and generate ideas to help Dean John Farmer identify new ways of addressing its resource challenges.
This spring, Tractenberg will see the result of one of his efforts – the publication of Opening a Thousand Doors: A Centennial History of Rutgers School of Law–Newark (The History Press, 2010). The book was conceived and some first drafts were written by students in the Centennial Seminar, which Tractenberg developed and taught. As part of its curriculum, the year-long seminar sponsored a program in fall 2008 celebrating the school’s commitment to racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender diversity, and a second program in spring 2009 featuring the school’s equally strong commitment to public service, law reform, and social justice.
About these programs, Tractenberg said, “In true Rutgers Law School spirit, they dramatized our longstanding commitments by bringing back some of our most successful and influential faculty and alumni to testify to the great contributions the school has made to their professional and personal lives.
“Imagine opening the fall diversity program,” he continued, “with speakers such as former faculty member Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez ’79, and Wade Henderson ’73, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Human Rights. From start to finish, that program brought to vivid life what Rutgers Law School’s commitment to diversity has accomplished – nothing short of changing the face of the legal profession. The spring program did much the same with regard to another signal accomplishment of the school – making real the importance of public service, law reform and social justice to every graduate whatever his or her career path.”
Opening a Thousand Doors describes, with fondness and honesty, the triumphs and challenges of the law school’s first 100 years and concludes with a discussion of some of the issues that face the current leadership. One theme that emerges is the extent to which Rutgers has provided an opportunity to many who otherwise would not have had access to a high-quality legal education. The book takes its title from an interview Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren ’76, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the $700 billion of TARP funding, gave to the Star-Ledger(June 21, 2009) in which she expressed her appreciation to Rutgers Law School which “took a poor kid from Oklahoma and kicked open a thousand doors for me.” After reading the manuscript, Warren offered the following testimonial, which will appear on the book’s back cover:
“Opening a Thousand Doors is a lively chronicle and thoughtful social history, but most of all, it is a great mystery whose next chapter is still in draft. What happens to Rutgers Law is an important question for all of us who love The People’s Electric Law School – and an equally important question for everyone who thinks seriously about the future of education in reshaping both lawyers and laws.”
Later this year Tractenberg will welcome the publication by Rutgers University Press of New Jersey Goes A-Courting: 10 Legal Cases That Shook the Nation, his second book growing out of the Centennial celebration. Most of the cases have a major Rutgers Law School imprint, including Abbott v. Burke, the landmark public education funding litigation in which he has played an integral role. Tractenberg is writing the chapter on that case, as well as an introduction and conclusion, and is editing the book. Awarded a prestigious scholarly residency fellowship at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy this past summer, he worked on the Abbott v. Burke chapter and the centennial book while overlooking Lake Como.
Improving urban education has been Tractenberg’s central interest since he joined Rutgers in 1970. Over the years that focus has expanded from advocacy, teaching, and scholarship to applied research on education law and policy. In 2000 he became founding director of the Rutgers–Newark interdisciplinary Institute on Education Law and Policy. IELP research promotes informed discussion on issues ranging from school choice, to managing educational data, to reestablishing local control in state-operated school districts, to replicating excellent urban schools, to school governance and mayoral control. Its reports provide authoritative, balanced perspectives that have attracted a national audience.
As an outgrowth of his work with the Institute, Tractenberg and IELP co-director Alan R. Sadovnik, Rutgers–Newark professor of education, sociology and public affairs, are co-directors of the Newark Schools Research Collaborative (NSRC). This collaboration between the Newark Public Schools District and Rutgers–Newark will spawn a mid- to long-term research agenda of projects designed to improve student achievement and school effectiveness in Newark’s district schools and public charter schools. NSRC’s mission is three-fold: to provide independent and objective research about what works in the Newark schools; to create and apply data essential to improving student academic achievement; and to foster a collaborative research culture among universities, the district and community stakeholders. The program is partially modeled after the nationally-recognized Consortium on Chicago School Research, a partnership between the Chicago public schools and the University of Chicago.
“We are excited about bringing the research capacity of Rutgers–Newark and other area universities to bear on Newark’s educational challenges. This is community service of the highest order, a win-win for all concerned.”
Tractenberg said of NSRC that “with operating funding already assured from the Victoria Foundation and the Newark Charter School Fund, and with a major Ford Foundation grant in process, the present and future look secure. We are excited about bringing the research capacity of Rutgers–Newark and other area universities to bear on Newark’s educational challenges. This is community service of the highest order, a win-win for all concerned.”
Having overseen the writing of its centennial history, Tractenberg is well-aware that Rutgers Law School is again facing challenging times and optimistic that, as it has in the past, the school will overcome those challenges. A growing entrepreneurial spirit, demonstrated by his efforts through IELP and NSRC and by the launch of a continuing education program, will help add to the school’s resources. Tractenberg said, with great confidence, that “as Rutgers Law School refashions itself to meet its challenges, it will hold true to its core commitments to diversity, public service, and professional excellence for all its students.”
As for that easy pedaling along the local bike path? Perhaps next year. In May, Tractenberg is planning a one-day, 100-mile bicycle ride to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut for his 50th college reunion. Not surprisingly, he’s using it as a vehicle to raise money for two favorite causes — the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, to which his 16-year experience with non-Hodgkins lymphoma has given him a special connection, and Wesleyan’s scholarship fund for disadvantaged students.
When asked if he was thinking about slowing down, Tractenberg said that his wife of 32 years, Neimah, predicted that, if he retired, he’d find ways to keep just as busy. For himself, looking back over his career, Tractenberg said that “persistence is probably my greatest strength. I agree with the outstanding legal scholar Woody Allen that 80 percent of success is showing up. And I plan to keep showing up.”