On May 18, 2020, Fordham Law School celebrated the Class of 2020 with a first-ever virtual diploma ceremony. Over 2,000 people tuned in to watch a live videocast of the online celebration (the entire event is available for viewing here).
“I know this isn’t what you imagined for your diploma ceremony,” acknowledged Dean Matthew Diller in a video addressing the 565 graduates, “and I certainly never envisioned giving you this speech from my Brooklyn apartment.”
Noting the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the Law School to cancel its traditional in-person graduation celebration, Diller told the Class of 2020 that “there has not been an event that has touched the fundamentals of life in the U.S. in this way since World War II.”
Diller also acknowledged that, like World War II, the world that emerges from the pandemic would be forever changed. “But, undoubtedly there will also be new opportunities as the experience changes our society, economy, and culture on a long term basis,” he reminded the graduates. “Your challenge will be to find a footing in this new world… COVID-19 has cast a sharp spotlight on many issues of justice in our society—the sharp disparities in illnesses and deaths along racial and social lines bring to the fore the yawning chasm in our society between those with resources and those without—gaps in health care, in living conditions and in the workplace have major ramifications across many dimensions of people’s lives.” Lawyers would be vital in addressing these issues, he stressed.
Diller then introduced Judge Robert A. Katzmann, this year’s commencement speaker. Judge Katzmann was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1999 by President Bill Clinton, where he has served as chief judge since 2013. Not only has he authored many important decisions and court opinions (such as Vance v. Trump and Altitude Express v. Zarda, both of which are currently before the Supreme Court), but his 2007 Marden lecture (on the lack of immigrant representation in deportation proceedings) at the New York City Bar Association sparked a movement that eventually established the Immigrant Justice Corp. Dean Diller noted that Judge Katzmann will be presented with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at a future in-person celebration for the Class of 2020.
Katzmann, too, spoke to the particular resilience of the current class of graduates, noting that the skills they have gained by navigating the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic will serve them well in their future careers. “Addressing you today is a special privilege because I have the conviction that not only will you succeed in whatever you do—as lawyers in private practice, or in government, or in business, or in non-profits, or in academia,” he expressed, “but you will also point all of us to a better way, having endured the current crisis.”
Juan M. Carillo, president of the Student Bar Association, presented the Teacher of the Year Award to Professor Joseph Landau. Carillo praised Landau for demonstrating “an amazing, unique ability to adapt to the circumstances without sacrificing any of the course content.” Carillo added: “He was also able to manifest a sense of calm and caring that was much needed, and the energy he brought to lectures was unmatched.”
Landau, in accepting the award said, “This award means so much to me, and here’s why: There’s a lot I love about getting to be a law professor—I get to think, I get to write, and I get to be part of the lifeblood of this incredible institution. But it’s getting to know you, our students, both in and out of class, that is by far the best part.” He then asked graduates to examine their growth—as scholars, lawyers, and humans—since the start of their law school experience, and lauded them on their academic accomplishments. “You are the future, and through your intellect, your energy, and your vision, you are going to help guide this country and this world through the challenges that it faces today.”
Vice President of the Student Bar Association Deanna R. Cohen presented the award for Adjunct Teacher of the Year to Professor Paula Franzese, who echoed Dean Diller’s sentiments on the social and economic disparities laid bare by the pandemic. “You will enter the immense chasm between what is and what needs to be with the fortitude of heart… the strength of your spirit, and the mightiness of your beautiful intellects. Use all of those acuities to narrow that gap,” she said. She cautioned them to remain optimistic, especially in our current climate. “In a world fraught with uncertainty, remember that you remain in charge of two things: your focus… and how you treat others.”
Professor Daniel Capra followed Franzese, presenting a host of awards to graduates for their academic achievements, moot court victories, and service.
The academic year was marked by personal losses within the Fordham community. In his remarks, Diller noted that the ceremony was marked by the absence of two members of the class of 2020, William Jones and Michael Aaronson, both of whom passed away before completing their J.D. degrees. Additionally, two pillars of the Fordham faculty were lost during the 2019–20 academic year: Professor Joel Reidenberg and Laurence Abraham, head of Instructional Services at the Maloney Law Library. Both were honored posthumously with the Eugene J. Keefe Award for service to Fordham Law School. In his remarks, Professor Olivier Sylvain praised Reidenberg as an innovative legal scholar who earned worldwide renown in legal, intellectual property, and computer science circles. “One of the more heart-wrenching things about his passing is that he has not been able to comment and engage on our current policy debates about information law and policy. He would have a lot to say about Zoom… We are the worse for his passing.”
Director of the Law Library Todd Melnick spoke next, and he remarked on Abraham’s empathetic and personalized approach to librarianship. “It was a job of smiles, kind words, well-timed compliments, and disarming jokes offered at just the right moment to cut the particular tension of law school life,” he recalled fondly. “It was a librarianship that modeled genuine pleasure in learning and knowing, in solving difficult legal problems and in finding a meaningful life in the legal profession.” He remarked on Abraham’s old-fashioned approach to librarianship, and his emphasis on books, rather than tech. “His contributions to Fordham Law School are incalculable, and we will miss him enormously.”
Members of the faculty recorded a video offering well wishes and advice to the graduates, including a humorous and heartfelt poetic sendoff from the clinic faculty. A video featuring graduating students followed with reflections on their memories of their time at Fordham Law.
Following the video, the names of 565 graduates were announced.
Despite an academic year of unprecedented upheaval and loss, the 113th annual diploma ceremony projected a message of resilience, optimism, and hope. Former Dean John F. Feerick offered uplifting words of advice to the Class of 2020, “Dream big and follow your passion and bliss. You can make more differences in the world than you now realize.”