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Building on CUNY Law’s Public Interest Mission Institution: Gregory Koster

November 15, 2012

A generous donation by Gregory Koster, who was chief law librarian, associate dean for administration and finance, building project manager, and professor of law for 30 years at CUNY Law, is being recognized with the naming of the Gregory and Diana Koster Circulation Desk in the library of the new building at 2 Court Square. Koster reflects on his experience at CUNY Law and his hopes for the future of the Law School.

Gregory Koster

Gregory Koster

What brought you to CUNY Law?

I decided to become a librarian in junior high school, when I got a part-time job at the local public library. After college, I went to library school, and then worked at the Columbia University Libraries for five years. When I heard that Pace University was starting a new law school near where I lived, I applied and became head of technical services. After two years (and two moves of the library), the chief law librarian resigned, and I was asked to become acting law librarian. That led to my going to law school in the part-time program at Pace and, ultimately, to my becoming chief law librarian and professor at CUNY.

How has working at CUNY Law been a good fit for you?

When I came to CUNY, I thought it was just another step on the typical ladder of jobs at bigger and “better” schools. But CUNY Law seduced me. I fell in love with the mission and never felt any need to move. There is no better place than CUNY Law.

As one of the first handful of faculty hired, I was part of the planning team that crafted the mission and designed all the structures and programs to support it. The first big debate was between those who favored the access mission and those who focused on the public interest mission. Ultimately, we decided that both are important, and, even though there is occasional tension between them, I’m proud that we have continued to balance both priorities.

Tell us a little about your teaching and public interest passions.

The more I thought about our mission to provide access to law school and the bar to communities that have historically been excluded and to train lawyers whose career focus would be serving the public interest, the more I realized that we needed to make CUNY Law a very different kind of law school. I had been taught to teach to the middle of the class, and let those at the bottom drop away—but at CUNY, it was important to me that every one of my students master the skills they would need as lawyers. It was also important that my courses cover the skills they would need in public interest practices, where the resources would be limited. The result was a legal research curriculum that continued to stress hard-copy research, until we were sure all our graduates would have access to Westlaw and Lexis, and a hands-on problem method that gave every student a solid grasp of the process of legal research in a wide variety of areas. The most gratifying feedback I received was after my students came back from their first summer jobs and proudly told me that they had been the legal research experts among all the summer associates.

My passion for public interest deepened a decade ago when I spent my evenings for four years at the New York Catholic Bible School. I saw the foundations of social justice and human rights in the Hebrew prophets’ care for widows and strangers, in Jesus’s call to love our neighbors without limiting either the love or the definition of “neighbor,” and in Catholic social teaching as old as Saint Francis and enunciated more and more clearly over the past century in Rerum Novarum, the second Vatican Council, and the writings of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Uniting my experience at CUNY Law with my Catholic faith has made social justice a central passion of my life.

You were the building project manager for CUNY Law’s new building in Long Island City. What does the move mean for CUNY Law?

I was involved with all of CUNY Law’s buildings over the past 30 years. At each stage we were able to change the character of an existing building to fit the Law School’s unique needs, and the design of the building helped the Law School grow and mature. P.S. 130 is fondly remembered as the womb in which CUNY Law was born. The temporary building at Queensborough created an unmatched sense of community in that cadre of students and faculty. Main Street was designed to foster the “house system” of lawyering seminars, and the success of that architecture was crucial to the development of our highly praised first-year program.

Two Court Square is the best building of all, in every way. The original construction is of very high quality, and our architects were able to create wonderful spaces to support all aspects of our program, including first-year lawyering seminars, lecture and seminar classes, clinics and concentrations, the library, and the administrative functions to support them. And, of course, the location will integrate CUNY Law with the rest of the university, the public interest sector throughout the city, the courts, and, most of all, the clients we were created to serve.

How did leading the library for so many years prepare you to be the associate dean for administration and finance?

I used to joke that since the library is 10 percent of the Law School’s budget, all I had to do was add a zero to everything. But, in fact, that isn’t far from the truth. As chief librarian, I learned to budget and plan, develop services and monitor outcomes, supervise and evaluate staff, and, most importantly, build and lead a team of professionals. The administrative dean needs to do those same things, and I was pleased to find that my library experience carried over very smoothly.

What part of your work at CUNY Law over time makes you most proud?

I’m most proud of the teams that I built, in both the library and the administration, which continue to serve the Law School. My management philosophy is to hire and develop really good people, give them the resources they need, and encourage them to take responsibility. When people feel empowered, they rise above anything you could demand of them. In particular, Julie Lim is a leader who is building on the innovative 20th-century library that I developed to create a model for the law library of the 21st century.

You have given so much of your life to CUNY Law School. How do you think about your legacy here?

The new building at 2 Court Square is the most visible legacy. Of course, the credit is shared among the entire community that kept reminding us to keep our eyes on the mission. My role involved facilitating community participation and feedback, helping to translate the community vision into architectural direction, and making sure that the details were right. The net result is even better than my wildest dreams at the beginning of the process.

What inspired you to support CUNY Law? What do you hope your gift will achieve for the Law School?

There is no other law school as committed to public service as CUNY Law. We all need CUNY Law to flourish and develop, and I am happy to be able to do a small part to ensure its future.

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