An appreciation: Paul Tractenberg, a scholar and teacher in service to the public good

Paul Tractenberg
Paul Tractenberg
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By Linda Stamato

How does a public university differ from a private one? In many ways, perhaps, the differences are barely discernible, but in one particular way, a public research university is distinctive: Its commitment to the public service.

Land grant universities, particularly, like Rutgers, have a long and solid tradition of acting on that mission. And few individuals stand out as prominently in their commitment and impact as Paul Tractenberg, law professor at Rutgers University in Newark.

Tractenberg was honored last week at the Law Center at Rutgers by a panel of distinguished admirers who included Deborah Poritz, former Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court; Gary Stein, a former Associate Justice of the Court; David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center that Paul established in 1973; and several faculty.

The title of the panel captures Paul’s life in a nutshell: Using the Law to Achieve Thorough, Efficient and Desegregated Schools.

Following the panel, various friends and admirers reflected on Paul’s contributions.

Morris Project researchers Allison Roda and Paul Tractenbeg. Photo by Kevin Coughlin, nov 30, 2016
Morris Project researchers Allison Roda and Paul Tractenberg, December 2016 in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Why take note of Paul’s contributions on Morristown Green? Because he has been directing a study on the Morris School District, the Morris Project, and the impressive progress his team has made.

The website of Paul’s new nonprofit organization, the Center on Diversity and Equality in Education, features the December 2016 report published by The Century Foundation and coverage by Morristown Green, the NY Times and the Daily Record, and a laudatory tweet by the then-U.S. Secretary of Education John King.

The Morris School District has every reason to be proud of its history, its current standing and, as I see it already, its legacy.

Tractenberg’s work provides insight into its exceptionalism, its challenges, and its successes and, as such, he contributes mightily to public understanding and advancing the common good.

This is but the latest of Paul’s many, many efforts in the public domain. So, if I may, a few words about this formidably competent and generous and gracious colleague.

Paul established the well-regarded Education Law Center (ELC),  a public interest law project, in 1973, and served as its director for several years.

I WAS ABLE TO DEVOTE MUCH OF MY TIME AS A LAW PROFESSOR TO WORK
THAT MATTERED DEEPLY TO ME AND THAT I BELIEVED WAS OF CONSEQUENCE
TO OTHERS. THERE IS NOTHING BETTER THAN TO EARN YOUR LIVING DOING
WHAT YOU VALUE AND ENJOY IN AN ENVIRONMENT THAT ENGAGES YOU.— Paul Tractenberg, retirement speech

As a result, he was involved in a number of landmark constitutional cases about public education, not least Abbott v. Burke, which judges and lawyers in New Jersey have voted overwhelmingly as the most important state court decision of the 20th century.

While he engaged in public service, he was teaching, advising and counseling hundreds of students, many of whom remain in close touch with him today.

Paul went on to create the Institute on Education Law and Policy (IELP), and directed it until his retirement (if one can call it that) in January 2016.

Since his retirement, Tractenberg has formed the Center on Diversity and Equality in Education, mentioned above, as the home for his continuing education law and policy projects.

Paul Tractenberg is a man for all season: A model faculty member, a mensch, an exemplar of faculty service in the public interest.

Some call him a warrior for equality—and quality–in public education. I’d call him a saint.

Morristown resident Linda Stamato is a faculty fellow at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers in New Brunswick and co-director of its Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, a center created with Paul Tractenberg more than 30 years ago. Their relationship, however, started taking shape long before that. The League of Women Voters of New Jersey, where Stamato chaired the education portfolio on the state board, filed an amicus brief in the initial school funding challenge, Robinson v. Cahill, in 1972.

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