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Launching a Law School, Supporting Its Future: CUNY Dean Dave Fields

November 15, 2012

City University of New York dean Dave Fields recently made the biggest bequest in CUNY Law’s history: $1 million. As a gesture of thanks for his generous gift and role in founding the Law School, the board of trustees of CUNY has named the Law School’s auditorium after him.

“It’s a tremendous honor to have any part of the Law School named after you. And unexpected!” muses the dean, referring to what is now known as the Dave Fields Auditorium.

CUNY Dean Dave Fields

CUNY Dean Dave Fields

You might have to glance up a couple of times to catch the glint in his eye and the hint of mischief in his bearded grin before he speaks again.

“When they told me they wanted to name a space after me, I said: ‘A bathroom? That’s okay with me!’ They said: ‘No, the auditorium.’ I said: ‘You’re kidding! The Fields Stall—that’s much better!'” says the dean.

Fields is obviously very much on his game. Jokes aside, his estate plan will have a lasting positive impact on the Law School; its public interest mission; and its students, faculty, and staff.

Fields has worked full-time for CUNY since 1972, right after he graduated from Queens College. He’s been special counsel to four chancellors, special assistant to three Queens College presidents, a higher education specialist in the governor’s executive chamber, director and general counsel of the Queens College Student Union, associate dean to three Law School deans, and a Law School faculty member since 1984. So why, at age 63 and after a career of service to CUNY, should now be the time for Fields to make a historic gift?

The faculty’s vote last December to raise academic standards was what he calls “a major watershed in the Law School’s history. It will be a milestone when we review the faculty’s accomplishments. I wanted to support the faculty’s decision.”

To that end, Fields says the Law School will maintain his gift—the principal—while drawing off the income. That way, the funds will last many years. One-half of the amount is earmarked for student scholarships, and the other half is earmarked for faculty and staff development. A faculty committee will give scholarships to students that are based on academic performance. Another committee, such as the Professional Development Committee, will allocate the other half of the funds toward conferences and training courses to help develop the faculty and staff.

Fields has a personal interest in making sure the Law School succeeds; he helped create it and position it as a public interest institution a decade before it opened.

The seeds of CUNY Law date to the early 1970s, when Fields was a student activist at Queens College. He served as cochair of the College Undergraduate Curriculum Committee and helped develop the QC individualized B.A., which was then copied by the university when it created the CUNY B.A. He also served as deputy chair to its academic senate and helped form the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) to keep student activism alive after the Vietnam War.

Creating NYPIRG in 1972 demonstrated Fields’s keen ability to organize and mobilize supporters, from students and the Queens College Senate to CUNY’s board of trustees, and to move proposals through political minefields.

A mong Fields’s early allies was Joseph S. Murphy, who would later become CUNY’s chancellor. Murphy, as Queens College president, hired Fields, as an assistant, to staff a commission planning the future of Queens College, its mission, and its structure.

“During this process, Murphy asked me: ‘What would you think if we started a law school?'” says Fields, remembering he thought it was a terrific idea. “And he said to me: ‘Well, go figure out how to do it, and do it!'”

Fields helped get the proposal to establish the Law School into the report of the Commission on the Future of Queens College and eventually made a motion in the academic senate in 1972 to start a law school at Queens College. The academic senate adopted that motion unanimously, and Fields spent years turning the idea into a real public law school that would train its students to reach people historically underserved by the law and to take a clinical approach.

Fields picked up more supporters, including then CUNY chancellor Robert J. Kibbee, to get the proposal approved by the board of trustees in 1973. After that, it was up to the New York State Board of Regents to sign off on the Law School’s charter. It did so, and the City University gained authority to grant the J.D. degree and open a law school.

By 1976, a search committee had been established to choose the Law School’s first dean, but that effort had to be put on hold because the City of New York was close to bankruptcy. So the Law School would have to wait.

Concurrent with working to set up the Law School, Fields realized he himself had to get a law degree. “I had a master’s degree in urban studies. I could not talk to people about creating a law school unless I was a lawyer. You could see their eyes closing! I could talk, but they wouldn’t listen,” he recalls.

His only option close enough—and offering classes after work—was nearby St. John’s School of Law. He went to night school until he got his J.D. in 1979.

W hen the City’s financial condition could no longer support the City University, the State of New York, in 1979, took over the funding of CUNY’s “senior colleges,” and that put development of the Law School back on track. Fields did his part by working with then president Saul Cohen to bring the Law School to the attention of the Legislature, which approved funding in 1980. A Queens College search committee selected Charlie Halpern as the Law School’s first dean.

W hat followed was a quick succession of former public school homes for the new Law School, beginning with the too-small-for-classes Solomon Schechter High School in 1981, then moving to P.S. 130—purchased for $1 from the Board of Education—then to a Queensborough Community College–owned building that Fields acquired after working out a deal with the Queensborough president, and finally to the Campbell Junior High School in Flushing. The Campbell building was in use from 1984 until the spring of 2012.

Last year, Fields, working with Dean Michelle Anderson, served on the CUNY committee that chose the Court Square building that currently houses the Law School.

As Fields, in his office space facing the wide-open skyline of Long Island City, animatedly recounts the early years of the Law School, you realize it has been quite an odyssey. Against all odds, CUNY Law is alive and thriving and will be for many years to come, thanks to Fields.

In the end, he cites the Law School’s motto, “Law in the Service of Human Needs.”

“There’s so much greed out there that doing something to help human needs requires reaching back and paying back,” Fields says. “It’s incumbent upon everybody who’s made it in society to pay back, because that’s how you make it better. I’m thrilled to be able to pay back.”

— Paul Lin

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