Take 5 with Professor Thomas Rozinski

A Former NYC Commissioner Brings Real World Know-how to Touro's Polisci and Pre-Law Programs

November 30, 2016
Tom Rozinski
Tom Rozinski

1. Can you tell me about your background and education?

I grew up in Ohio and moved to New Jersey when I was 12. I attended Catholic schools through high school but chose to attend a secular university, Yale. I majored in economics and was considering obtaining a Ph.D. in that field, but after spending a summer working with economists at the Department of Agriculture in Washington DC I rethought my educational plans.

When I returned to school in the fall after my junior year, I added political science as a second major and applied to graduate schools in that subject as well as law schools. Harvard accepted me into doctoral programs in both law and government. I spent six years living in Cambridge, earning J.D. and M.A degrees and completing all Ph.D. requirements except for my dissertation.

2. Why did you choose to leave law for academia?

While at Harvard, I was struck by the fact that almost all my professors had spent their entire lives in academia.  This meant they had little to offer students about the non-academic world in which most would soon be working. I resolved that before I began full-time teaching, I would seek significant experience in non-academic positions. I moved to New York City to take a job as an associate at a law firm, and then I moved to Anderson Kill & Olick to become a partner. While at that firm, I voted to admit Rudy Giuliani to the partnership after he lost the 1989 election for Mayor of New York. I worked on several cases involving his clients, and after he won the 1993 election he asked me to join his administration.

I worked for the City of New York for seven years, spending the first five as general counsel to the Parks Department, and then working a similar job at the Department of Homeless Services. During the last year of Giuliani’s second term, he promoted me to commissioner, putting me in charge of what was (and still is) the largest shelter system in the world. It was the most challenging job I ever had, since New York City is legally mandated to provide shelter for every homeless person as long as they need it. I would have liked to continue in the job in the Bloomberg administration, but the new Mayor wanted his own people in charge, so I had to resign shortly after he took office.

By this time, I had gained 12 years of practical experience in law and government, and decided I was ready to pursue a full-time academia job.  Prof. Ross Zucker of Touro’s Lander College for Men hired me as adjunct professor of political science during the 2002-03 year, but my sights were on teaching in law school. The University of Michigan Law School hired me and I moved to Ann Arbor. However, I was quickly disillusioned by a legal education system that did little to teach students how to learn or practice law. At most law schools, classes are large, faculty contact is minimal, and instruction in writing is limited to one course during the first year. Two years of teaching in a system I didn’t have faith in convinced me to leave Ann Arbor and return to New York City. I worked as a legal consultant for several months, a job most notable for introducing me to my future wife. In the spring of 2006, a Touro political science professor resigned, and Prof. Zucker recommended me for a one-year interim position in the Lander Colleges. Aside from one semester on research leave, I’ve been here ever since.

 

3What do you like most about working at a college? What would you consider a successful day at Touro?

One of the things I like most about my job at Touro is the small size of the department. This means that I need to teach in several fields of political science, and I relish the diversity of my course load. I currently teach political theory courses in the Women’s College in Manhattan and the Women’s Division at Avenue J. I teach constitutional law and international relations to the men in Brooklyn, and also Fundaments of Criminal Law in the new NYSCAS criminal justice program. Next semester I will be teaching courses in American government, along with a prelaw course in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

I also enjoy serving as the Touro’s main prelaw advisor, which gives me the opportunity to work with students in fields outside of political science.  One of my prelaw advising projects was bringing the Sabbath observer LSATs to Avenue J 2011, which I took on after a student complained she couldn’t find anywhere in New York City to take the exam. 2017 will be the seventh year that the LSATs will be offered at Touro. I’ve also helped numerous students with their law school applications. When I arrived, Touro students only occasionally got into Harvard Law School; over the past six years, there has been an average of two Touro graduates admitted each year. Harvard Law School now regularly visits Touro to recruit our students.

Touro has several campuses, and this semester I teach at three of them. Since my average class size is five, I know everyone and am able to work with them closely in developing their critical thinking skills and to teach them about topics in political science. Every paper I assign becomes an interactive experience in writing, as I make 50-100 comments on most first drafts. Students refine their work over the course of multiple drafts, which helps them see many ways to improve their writing. The final paper they submit is often suitable for use as a writing sample, and about a dozen have been published in the Political Science Journal. I also try to work with each student in developing career plans, which often include working in law, government, teaching, or not-for-profit service.

4. I understand you use popular music to teach political theory. How exactly does that work?

About eight years ago, I started using songs to illustrate concepts in political theory. Many of the ideas that the great political thinkers developed still permeate our culture, and are reflected in the lyrics of popular songs. For example, I use “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from Guys and Dolls to demonstrate Plato’s belief that the rule of the wise is preferable to democracy, and Ace of Base’s “I Saw the Sign” to analogize to Plato’s cave and his theory of knowledge. The students link the lyrics to concepts in political theory, this creates a mnemonic device that helps them remember these concepts for exams. The Wall Street Journal featured my use of music in an article three years ago, and last year I published an article in P.S.: Political Science and Politics about my methodology.

5. What do you do in your spare time? What are your passions?

Four years ago, I got involved the Northeast Association of Prelaw Advisors (NAPLA), the largest prelaw advising association in the U.S. One of the reasons I joined NAPLA was to create a community of prelaw teachers who discuss teaching methods and how they can best prepare students to succeed in law school. There is a great disconnect between colleges and law schools over the teaching of law and legal writing, and I began to design a forum that would build bridges between law professors and the political science professors who teach their future students. As a result of my efforts, I’ve been elected Vice President of NAPLA, and in 2018-19 will serve as President.

Speaking of bridges, outside of Touro I am a serious bridge player ranked in the top 2% in the country. I learned bridge about 30 years ago and have won first and second place in national events. Bridge gives me the opportunity to use the mathematical part of my mind in a way different from political science, and I play online as well as in three or four major tournaments a year. Bridge is a very difficult game to play well, but the satisfaction I get from winning a competition is not as great as the fulfillment I get from helping a Touro student write an A+ paper.