Yale University

Class News

Gus Speth '64, co-founder of NRDC, remembers

Gus Speth, our classmate and dean of Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, was a co-founder of the National Resources Defense Council. The following article, from the November/December 2005 Yale Alumni Magazine, pertains.

From the editor

Some of Yale's best-known institutions are impermanent. Great professors who have taught at Yale 30, 40, or 50 years endow the place with their personalities, and to the generations of students they influence, they come to seem immutable. But they are painfully unlike courtyards and bell towers, because they don't last.

One of those institutions died this September: Boris I. Bittker '41LLB, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Law. He was a preeminent tax lawyer ― so respected in his field that every tax law and accounting firm in the country has his books on its shelves. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and, as a Sterling Professor, one of the small number who have earned Yale's most exalted academic honor. Bittker could have become the dean of the Law School; but he preferred, said former dean Guido Calabresi '53, '58LLB, to be the informal in-house adviser "to dean after dean after dean."

People with the depth of mind for this level of scholarship tend to surprise. They don't follow standard paths or patterns. As a scholar of tax law, Bittker worked in a field that doesn't lend itself to amazement, at least for laypeople. It was his extracurriculars that were unusual.

In 1968, a handful of graduating Yale law students decided to found a legal nonprofit that would do for the environment what the NAACP legal defense arm was doing for civil rights. One of the students, Gus Speth '64, '69LLB, sent a memo to the Yale law faculty describing the plan and asking for help. Only a few professors responded. To the students' astonishment, Bittker was among them. In the late 1960s, established middle-aged tax lawyers generally stayed aloof from unusual political ventures by students ― "brash and presumptuous" students, Speth says. He remembers: "Here was a man of impeccably good judgment, tremendously respected by the bar, the leading tax scholar in the country ― exactly what we needed to launch a public interest law firm with credibility. He put himself on the line for us. A pinnacle of the legal profession came out of the tax books and said, 'I'll help you."

Gus Speth is now the dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the former head of the UN Development Program. The venture he co-founded after law school became the Natural Resources Defense Council, today the leading environmental public policy organization. (I worked there for several years as editor of its quarterly magazine.) All of this was, in some part, made possible because a Yale professor lent his expertise to NRDC's effort for nonprofit tax status; lent his counsel to its director, John Adams; and lent his name as a trustee to the letterhead, where it opened doors that might otherwise have stayed closed.

Bittker worked at Yale for almost 60 years. He had become an assistant professor in 1946, and after he retired in 1983, he went to the office every weekday. Speth remembers visiting him there in the past academic year. Bittker was 88 years old and ill; he would live only a few more months. But in the midst of their conversation about Speth's work, he asked: "How can I help you?"

Kathrin Day Lassila '81