Yesterday a university-wide email went out from NYU’s president, John Sexton. The subject line read “The Quest for Justice.” Honestly, most administrative emails I receive go straight to my “trash” folder unopened, but I assumed this particular message was concerning the recent events throughout the country involving the grand jury decisions not to indict police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island. And there’s more: a few weeks ago another unarmed black man, Akai Gurley, was accidentally shot and killed by a police officer in Brooklyn; in Cleveland, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, was shot and killed by a police officer who mistook the child’s toy gun for a real one. So I wondered what the president of our university would have to say about this devastating series of events.
The email was not what I was expecting. Not even close. Call me cynical, but I guess I was anticipating a politically objective, hyper-neutral message explaining that NYU is here to support all of its students, provide counseling services, etc. Instead, I read a deeply moving and inspirational message. President Sexton writes:
“The quest for justice is what drew many of us to this scholarly community – to study the law, so we might protect people’s rights; to study the healing arts, so we may alleviate suffering; to study economics, so prosperity might be widely shared; to study journalism and history, so our society would be informed and could confront hard truths about itself. . . . Now – in the aftermath of grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri and just a few miles away in our own city – we are challenged to think on the nature of justice; on how the administration of justice leaves many of us feeling alienated, angry, ill-served, mistrustful, and scared; and on whether our justice system is capable of treating all people justly.”
This message not only skips the administrative fluff, it cuts straight to the heart of the matter. While this email was sent to the entire NYU student body, it was especially powerful for me as a law student. It caused me to pause and think about my own reasons for coming to law school. If you’re like me, you might have decided to pursue law because you had lofty aspirations of changing the justice system, defending those who need it most, and giving a voice to people in our society who aren’t often heard. But if you’re like me, you may also have lost sight of those original aspirations in the whirlwind of balancing grades, journal membership, internship and career prospects, and the ever-lingering shadow of student loans.
I wish I could say I was so inspired by the email that I left my desk and marched right up to Columbus Circle to join in the protests. But I didn’t. Not because I don’t think protests are important or effective—on the contrary, I think protesting is an incredible exercise of one of the most fundamental constitutional rights that we have. Thinking about the email I had just read, it occurred to me that my most powerful tool isn’t my voice; it’s my education. And I try not to take for granted the opportunities that I have, because I know that so many other people (perhaps more deserving, qualified, etc.) don’t have them. At the risk of sounding a little nerdy, I’ll leave you with my favorite movie quote: “With great power comes great responsibility.” President Sexton’s email served as a welcome reminder of why I came to law school, and I hope this post will pass along the inspiration that I took from it.