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It was on a perfect late summer morning in Manhattan last year, during the third week of classes at New York Law School, when the catastrophe called Sept. 11 happened. Sept. 11 is something like the JFK assassination — everyone remembers in the minutest detail where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news — but those at New York Law School have especially potent memories. The school sits in the financial and legal heart of the city, less than 10 blocks from the site of the World Trade Center towers. Very soon after the attacks, it became a place for firefighters and police officers to recover between shifts, as well as an outpost for CNN’s round-the-clock coverage. For two weeks the school was shuttered, and when it reopened, there wasn’t even the illusion of normality. Trains and subways were hit-or-miss, as were power and communications. Asbestos and benzene from the fallen towers choked the air. Several students in the evening division did day duty as firefighters and cops — one of them lost 34 co-workers. Soldiers armed with machine guns demanded that anyone venturing into the area show an ID, making it feel precisely like a war zone. Immediately after the planes hit, NYLS’ dean, Richard Matasar, moved quickly from one half-empty classroom to the next, bringing the grim news. Like an anxious parent, he stood at the doorway of 57 Worth St., hugging beleaguered students and faculty as they straggled in for shelter. Before the communications network crashed, he worked the phones, trying to locate anyone from the school who might have been trapped in the towers. To his immense relief, nobody from the school was lost. During the weeks that followed, NYLS provided office space for displaced attorneys and community organizations, helped local shoe stores and barber shops handle their mounting debt problems, and pulled together a coalition of law schools to catalogue and coordinate volunteer responses from the legal community. While the faculty decided to make up all the lost classes — that much would be business as usual — they stopped being sticklers about attendance and became grief counselors. Students were allowed to decide, after finishing their final exams, whether to take those courses pass-fail; many took up that offer. The fateful tenure clock for junior faculty was stopped for a semester. Many people had a hard time concentrating on the humdrum of getting and giving a legal education. Why teach or study law in lawless times, people were asking themselves. And why, more pointedly, continue the sometimes Sisyphean task of trying to revive New York Law School? Only 14 months before disaster struck, Rick Matasar had formally come on board to replace the retiring dean, Harry Wellington. His mission: turn around a struggling law school. In a city with powerhouse law schools like Columbia and New York University, NYLS had been lagging. It was the “safe” school for students who couldn’t get in anyplace else. A third of its graduates were failing the bar exam, and only 70 percent of them found jobs — the worst in the state in both these categories. By the end of his first year, Matasar had the faculty dreaming about what he called “the Good Life” — an honors program for talented students; an infusion of new colleagues to lighten the teaching load; affiliations with nearby universities; and “a new, better name.” Sept. 11 temporarily made him a crisis manager, but now he’s back on course — trying to make NYLS a school where exciting things are going on.

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