David Van Zandt, the longtime dean of Northwestern University School of Law, has been named the next president of The New School in New York.

Van Zandt has held the top position at Northwestern’s law school since 1995, earning a reputation as one of the most progressive and outspoken deans in legal education. He has advocated tailoring legal education to the job market and has been critical of the ever-rising cost of a legal education amid shrinking job prospects.

He spearheaded the creation of the law school’s three-year joint J.D./MBA program and also started its two-year accelerated J.D. program — the first of its kind at a top-tier school.

Van Zandt said on Thursday that he doesn’t anticipate a leadership void in legal education once he moves to The New School.

“I think there are very good people out there, and hopefully they will take up the mission,” he said. “The economic pressures on law schools will only grow.”

Van Zandt said he had plenty of time during 15 years as dean to learn the ropes and become a voice for change. The average law dean tenure is about 5 years.

Van Zandt will assume The New School’s top job on Jan. 1, 2011, replacing former Nebraska U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, who has led the institution since 2001. Kerrey’s tenure hasn’t always been smooth; he clashed repeatedly with faculty members who disliked his management style, his budget decisions and his staffing choices. New School students took over a cafeteria in 2008 to protest Kerrey’s leadership.

Van Zandt isn’t too worried about inheriting a mutinous faculty or rowdy students. “I’m counting on the fact that people will settle down,” he said. “Anytime you go into a new environment and try to push things in a new direction, you’ll get pushback.”

Returning to New York was a big part of the job’s draw, he said. Van Zandt was an associate in New York’s Davis Polk & Wardwell before launching his teaching career in 1985.

“The New School is an innovative, progressive place,” he said. “There is a whole range of different schools, and it’s in a city I love. There is a lot of potential.”

The New School is in a period of growth, with the number of faculty members doubling during the past 10 years and enrollment on the rise.

Van Zandt stood out in the search for Kerrey’s replacement because of his outside-the-box approach to education, said Laura Frost, an associate professor of literary studies who served on the search committee. “An innovative thinker who is dedicated to academic excellence, he has built bridges among the practices of law, business, and the social sciences throughout his career,” she said in a written statement. “He is uniquely qualified to lead The New School.”

Van Zandt was most proud of the student and faculty culture he has helped create at Northwestern.

“There’s been a cultural change here at the institution, where I feel like people are all pulling in the same direction, which doesn’t always happen,” he said. “We have great students, and we’re making them more attractive to employers.”

K aren Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.