Benno Schmidt, an extraordinary educator and an extraordinary friend to ACTA, has died. We deeply mourn his loss.
There are few who brought such versatility of vision and intellect to the most important issues in education. He was a fierce and consistent defender of campus freedom of expression, deeply committed to the First Amendment and to the principles of Yale University’s C. Vann Woodward Committee Report. He was frequently tested, but never wavered in his devotion to academic freedom and freedom of speech, as his close friend Floyd Abrams said in tribute to him. He ably steered Yale, his alma mater, as the university’s 20th president, but his civic vision was much wider. His strong leadership of the City University of New York (CUNY) task force and board rescued the floundering CUNY from its low standards and poor reputation. The university that was the alma mater of 13 Nobel laureates once again reclaimed its place as a vibrant, successful institution, giving access to a high-quality education to so many thousands of students.
His career was legendary. After completing his undergraduate studies at Yale College in 1963, he gained his law degree from Yale Law School in 1966 and was clerk to Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren. After his time in the judiciary, he joined the Department of Justice and subsequently achieved tenure as a professor at Columbia Law School at the age of 29. Later, at the age of 42, he was appointed dean of Columbia Law School. His illustrious trajectory continued as he assumed the presidency of Yale at age 44, serving from 1986 to 1992.
Benno Schmidt’s tenure as president was one of high accomplishment. He successfully expanded the university’s endowment, fostered a better relationship between Yale and New Haven, and displayed visionary leadership by initiating a comprehensive series of renovations to Yale’s buildings. After leaving Yale, Mr. Schmidt took on the role of chief executive officer at Edison Schools, an ambitious enterprise aimed at widening access to high-quality K-12 education through the private management of public schools.
In 1998, Benno Schmidt chaired a task force dedicated to revitalizing the City University of New York. His passion for education led him to serve as vice chairman and then chairman of the CUNY Board of Trustees. Under his guidance, CUNY experienced significant improvements, including the recruitment of hundreds of faculty members and the establishment of an honors college as well as several graduate schools. Toward the end of his career, he served as chairman of Avenues: The World School, an international system of private K-12 schools. He also contributed his expertise as a member of the board of the New-York Historical Society.
ACTA had the privilege in 2010 of presenting him with the Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education. Speaking in tribute to him that evening were Floyd Abrams, Colin Powell, and Matthew Goldstein. His message was eloquent and urgent: Governing boards must govern. The changes desperately needed in higher education can only come from focused and energetic board governance. He emphasized the pivotal role of academic standards and courage: “If you as a trustee think change is needed, don’t be talked out of it by even the most strident criticism. You must have the courage of your convictions.”
In 2014, he chaired the Project on Governance for a New Era, leading a commission of 22 distinguished educators and government leaders to address the growing challenges colleges and universities face, in his words “at a time when America’s preeminent role in higher education is threatened.”
Those who had the privilege and pleasure of knowing Benno remember his keen sense of humor and his adventurous, charismatic personality. He was an accomplished folk musician and had cameo appearances in two Woody Allen films, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Husbands and Wives (1992).
Benno C. Schmidt, Jr., passed away suddenly on July 9, 2023. He leaves behind a profound legacy, having made invaluable contributions to constitutional law scholarship and reshaping the landscape of K-12 and higher education. ACTA mourns the loss of a great leader and a great friend.