Meet Our 17th President, Linda G. Mills
It’s not hyperbole to call NYU’s new president a true Renaissance woman: holder of four degrees spanning five topics, writer of three books on domestic abuse and one on judicial bias, champion of multifaith initiatives, filmmaker whose projects include a documentary about her mother’s escape from the Nazis. Oh, and then there’s Steve Martin . . .
Linda G. Mills, PhD, JD, LCSW, is not someone you can conveniently categorize. The university’s 17th president, who took the helm on July 1, has a diversity of degrees and professional experiences that positioned her for a career of helping others—and for challenging orthodoxy whenever it stands in the way of progress.
She has spent much of that career right here at NYU. Since first landing in Greenwich Village as a professor at the Silver School of Social Work in 1999, she has held numerous academic and administrative appointments, most recently as the Lisa Ellen Goldberg professor of Social Work, Public Policy, and Law, and as the vice chancellor and senior vice provost for Global Programs and University Life.
Her academic work has centered on providing understanding, and then pathways, to survivors of every kind and giving voice to the things people don’t often discuss. Her administrative work has focused on forging new frontiers for teaching and learning, building bridges between communities, and elevating wellness and the student experience.
Themes clearly emerge when you look at the scope of Mills’ work, but to better understand these many passions and missions, it helps to explain the forces behind them.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Mills was 5 years old when her grandfather described to her how he escaped a train en route to a concentration camp after being arrested during Kristallnacht; she later learned how her great-grandmother was picked up in Austria, transported to Latvia, and murdered in a mobile gas chamber.
“Much of my childhood was overshadowed by this history of the Holocaust, [but] my mother didn’t talk about it,” Mills says. This legacy of courage, trauma, and survival galvanized a curiosity about resilience and righteousness. “My family’s past became a rallying cry for the kind of life I wanted to live,” she says.
An alumna of Beverly Hills High School’s Class of 1975, she was one year below Carrie Fisher and one above Jamie Lee Curtis. An early job as a stock person at Giorgio, a Rodeo Drive boutique, enabled Mills to etch her small but significant place in comedy history: she sold Steve Martin his first white Brioni suit!
Mills earned her Bachelor of Arts in history and social thought at the University of California, Irvine, in 1979. There, she created the role of student grievance commissioner to empower her classmates by giving them a venue for communicating problems. As she helped field their complaints, a revelation emerged: she was naturally inclined to provide resources and a voice for those who needed it most.
Her next degrees were a Juris Doctor in 1983 from the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, followed by a Master of Social Work from San Francisco State University in 1986. While at SFSU, she met Versie Hawkins, who suffered a back injury that rendered her unable to work. Despite more than 30 years of employment, Hawkins was denied disability benefits. Mills leveraged her rookie-attorney legal know-how and burgeoning social-worker skills to represent Hawkins, with success, before the Social Security Administration. She then founded the not-for-profit Hawkins Center in her client’s honor, which provides Social Security advocacy to people with disabilities in the Bay Area. To date, the Hawkins Center has represented thousands of people in hearings or appeals.
The final arrow in Mills’ education quiver was her 1994 Doctor of Philosophy in health policy from Brandeis University. At this point, she had the institutional bona fides, along with considerable psychological steel, to fight for those wronged by almost any system. But now she turned her focus to research on intimate partner violence that would inevitably “rankle many,” as the New York Times Magazine reported in 2002.
Mills wrote three books on the topic: The Heart of Intimate Abuse (1998), Insult to Injury (2003), and Violent Partners (2009). In 2004, she founded NYU’s Center on Violence and Recovery, affiliated with Silver, and served as its inaugural executive director until assuming her current role.
Her groundbreaking research, funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Justice, has challenged the paradigms of domestic abuse by rethinking how we respond to violence in intimate relationships. Additionally, restorative justice–based programs she developed are being used in several jurisdictions across the country.
Following the traumatic events of September 11, 2001 (Mills, her husband, Peter, and their son, Ronnie, lived three blocks from the World Trade Center), Mills felt a resurgent need to explore her family’s deepest wound. “I asked if she would be willing to go back to Austria and actually tell me her story,” Mills says of convincing her mother, Anne—who had always been loath to discuss her forced expulsion from Europe during World War II—to do just that. “Once we got to Vienna, the story we were telling was bigger than just my mother’s story. That’s the day I became a filmmaker.”
The trip resulted in the award-winning 2010 documentary Auf Wiedersehen: ’Til We Meet Again, followed by two short docs—Of Many (2014) and Better to Live (2015)—as well as the 2019 full-length narrative drama The Rest of Us. Having premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, Of Many aired on ABC stations around the nation to a collective audience of 8.1 million viewers; it was also selected for the US State Department’s American Film Showcase, which recognizes the role of cultural diplomacy. This allowed Mills to travel to Tunisia, where she screened Of Many in 2015, just after the country experienced two terrorist attacks.
For the benefit of society as well as the individual, Mills is passionate about the importance of arts and humanities. “They are misunderstood, despite their essential role in defining our past and building our future,” she says. In the coming months, Mills will define the priorities for her tenure and galvanize the community to help her continue the kind of mission-driven work she has done for decades.
She’ll be doing it all as a trailblazer. On the day she was announced as president-designate, a reporter asked, “Do you think it’s extraordinary that you’re the first woman [NYU president], or do you think it’s, like, whatever?” Mills replied emphatically: “No! It is extraordinary. It’s a big deal.”
Hitting the Ground Running
In the first week of her presidency, Linda Mills kicked off the search committee meetings for the next Tandon School of Engineering dean . . .Photo credit: ©Jonathan King
. . . met with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to discuss faculty expertise and the university’s leadership on key issues . . .Photo credit: courtesy of NYU Photo Bureau
. . . and dropped in on rehearsals for “The Reality Show: NYU,” the annual student musical about ways to navigate the ups and downs of college life.Photo credit: ©Jonathan King
VIEW MORE: Watch President Mills walk us down her memory lane through a series of meaningful personal pictures at nyu.edu/mills-photos.
The most multifunctional building in the history of the Washington Square campus is an edifice that helped to answer the university’s need for more space.
The John A. Paulson Center at 181 Mercer Street is a marvel of design, technology, accessibility, and sustainability 16 years in the making. The 23-story, 735,000-square-foot facility—which won LEED Gold certification from the US Green Building Council—allows for a dizzying variety of functions. Among them: classrooms and housing; green roofs that reduce stormwater runoff, cool the building, offer outdoor communal space, and promote urban biodiversity; study rooms; next-level rehearsal spaces; a double-height-ceiling common area; a sports center complete with a gym that accommodates 2,000 Violets and a six-lane pool; two dining areas; and three theaters, one of them with 350 seats, a professional proscenium, and a fly loft.
But numbers don’t do justice to the project, to which hedge-fund titan Paulson (STERN ’78) donated $100 million. Everything about the center fosters connection—between student and student, student and teacher, performer and audience, and institution and city. Our next issue explores this spectacular new chapter of the NYU story.
NYU’s new chair of the Board of Trustees believes two things strongly: 1. Lawyers must act when the rule of law is in jeopardy and 2. “Pay it forward” is not just a film
When the school that is now the College of Arts and Science offered a 16-year-old Bronx kid a full ride—no senior year of high school required—he had a decision to make. NYU wasn’t his first choice, but for Evan Chesler, who once sold hot dogs at Yankee Stadium and whose folks could not fund his higher education, becoming a Violet was a unique opportunity.
He next pursued a master’s in Russian area studies from Hunter College, finishing coursework in 1972. It was during his first semester in NYU’s School of Law that he completed the thesis for his MA, which he earned in January 1973. He graduated cum laude with the JD in 1975. Chesler landed a coveted clerkship at the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, which at that point must have seemed like a vacation.
Chesler (front) at age 5 with his father, Philip, mother, Doris, and brother, Gary, ca. 1954
College yearbook portrait, 1970
With sons David (GSAS ’99, ’00, ’02) and Matthew, 1982
Greeting Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, 2006
With his daughter, Rebecca (CAS ’09, SPS ’19), former president Bill Clinton, and his wife, Barbara, 2003
With former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres, 2005
In 1976, he joined Cravath, Swaine & Moore. Known in the industry simply as Cravath, this isn’t just any law group. It’s renowned for its innovative approach to recruitment, training, compensation, and management. In addition to heavyweight clients (American Express, CBS, IBM, Morgan Stanley, Unilever, and United Airlines, to name a few), it also has a legacy of advocacy. In 1847, the firm brought a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of slavery. In 1966, one of its actions resulted in the Miranda warning being mandatory for the state interrogating individuals. And in 1971, when the Washington Post wanted to publish the Pentagon Papers, Cravath transformed the publication into a public company in order to afford it protected editorial freedom.
This is the firm that found Chesler so remarkable that it appointed him its first-ever chairman in 2013.
None of this, he believes, would have been possible without that scholarship from NYU. In 2013, Chesler, then a Board trustee and adjunct professor at the School of Law, became chair of NYU’s Momentum Campaign, with the goal of raising $1 billion for financial aid, a target surpassed.
“NYU educates an enormous number of first-generation college students—more than any of its peer schools—and we have more Pell Grant students than many of the Ivies combined,” he says. “Fortuitously for me, that was true when I was an undergrad as well. That demonstrates the humanity that existed then, and it still exists now.”