Five Questions with Donald Ross

Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by JOE DELESSIO, FCLC ’06; FORDHAM NEWS.

Donald Ross, FCRH ’65, has made a career out of shaping public policy. After graduating from Fordham, where in 1964 he led the student campaign to revive football as a club sport, he earned a law degree and went to work with Ralph Nader, helping college students become social activists. As founding director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, he was a key player in the 1970s anti-nuclear movement. He organized No Nukes rallies for tens of thousands of people in Washington, D.C., and New York City in the wake of the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 and later served as board chair of Greenpeace USA. Today, as a co-founder of the law firm Malkin & Ross (as well as its consulting spin-off, M+R), he is lobbying to get juvenile justice laws changed in states all over the country.

How did the experience of rallying students to bring football back to Fordham benefit you later in your career?

It taught me how to organize. It’s not all that dissimilar from some of the other things I’ve done, except in scale. We built a stadium for football, we built a stage for the No Nukes concert. We had ushers and other people for football. For the concert, we had people selling things and providing security and the like. But [the anti-nuclear movement]was a completely different issue and a completely different subject—probably a lot of the Fordham guys I worked with wouldn’t have agreed with the substance of the issue.

How did you get involved with Ralph Nader?

In law school at NYU, I knew some people who had worked for him, and they introduced me to him. Because of my background in student government and having done organizing of a kind that was different from most of the other people he was hiring, I ended up spending three years traveling, forming student Public Interest Research Groups on campuses across the country. Those were an idea Nader had, and we ended up co-authoring a book on it called Action for a Change.

The way it worked was students would vote to allocate a portion of their student activity fees and hire professionals like lawyers, scientists, engineers, or public policy people of one sort or another, and then work with them on real-world projects. It was great experience. He’s done just an amazing amount of work. I’ve spent time with him traveling, and it’s astonishing how recognizable he still is.

What are you working on now?

I’m just finishing up a six-year effort that ends in December of this year, working with a consortium of foundations to pool money to run a campaign to change juvenile justice laws around the country. What has happened essentially was in the late 1980s and 1990s, responding to a large crime wave, almost every state passed very harsh and punitive and ultimately dysfunctional laws that had mandatory minimum sentencing and lowered the age for someone to be considered an adult. So states where it was 18 sometimes went back to 16. They were locking kids up for long periods of time, and it wasn’t working. There were high rates of recidivism, and a series of studies showed what every parent knows, that adolescents aren’t always exercising good judgment. 

We’re working now in 31 states and have forged a very interesting alliance of people across the political spectrum. On certain parts of the juvenile reform issue, you can find Rick Perry and Jerry Brown in total agreement. Rand Paul, the libertarian senator from Kentucky, and Cory Booker, the liberal Democratic senator from New Jersey, are co-sponsoring legislation to reform juvenile criminal justice practices.

What do you think of the No Nukes movement today?

The whole energy picture has become much more complicated because of global warming. The stopping of nuclear power and the incontestable problems caused by dangerous air pollution from coal-fired power plants is driving a wave of renewable energy sources, whether it’s wind power or solar power, and they’re growing at very rapid rates. Had [the Three Mile Island]accident not happened and had nuclear power succeeded in growing further, you would see much less emphasis on solar and wind and other renewable sources because the utilities would have had so much money invested in [nuclear]plants, they’d have no incentive to look for alternatives. The fact that the nuclear industry in this country ground to a substantial halt has opened up the space for lots of other innovative technologies—and a much cleaner and ultimately safer way of generating power.

What do you hope Pope Francis will say in his upcoming encyclical on climate change?

Starting with what I hope he will not say: denounce industrial nations and corporations. This is too easy, too predictable, and so ho-hum. It will be a one-day news story, then gone and forgotten. Better to take a different tack, such as noting the reverence the world’s religions hold for the natural environment and using his convening power to bring together religious leaders to discuss the moral and spiritual threats posed by rapid climate change.