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The Ved Effect

Celebrating 50 years of commitment to DU and the art of teaching

One uncharacteristically foggy evening in Santa Fe, N.M., as Ved Nanda walked along near the plaza laughing with friends, he heard a voice call out from deep inside the thick fog: “Professor Nanda? Is that you?” The inquiry came from a former student who recognized Nanda’s distinctive laugh.

This type of encounter was hardly surprising or even uncommon for Nanda, a man who has made friends in every pocket of the globe. His distinctive laugh has long been indicative of a distinctive man.

Born in Gujranwala, India, Nanda lived modestly only in terms of material wealth; his six older sisters ensured that he was constantly mothered and thereby constantly spoiled. As a small child, he was approached by a young man with a kit of needles and ink who offered to tattoo Nanda’s left hand. Nanda agreed, and without any further instruction, the tattoo artist busily tattooed the delicate symbol of Om onto the back of Nanda’s hand. Om, a Hindu symbol that encapsulates the essence of the entire universe, is thought to be the sacred force that binds everything together.

Nanda remembers that it hurt a lot. Worse still, he was greeted with the only spanking he ever received when he showed the tattoo to his mother. He insisted that he would take it off the next day! Some seven decades later, the tattoo remains, a symbol from his past that still informs his path.

Early Advocate of Human Rights, Education

In August 1947, the partition of India divided the region and greatly disrupted the population. Nanda and his family resided in West Punjab (now in Pakistan), where they faced danger as religious minorities. What followed was the largest mass migration in human history: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 14 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were displaced following the partition. Nanda’s father and sisters were among the migrants searching for a new home in East Punjab.

Violence soon escalated in West Punjab, as trains traveling across the Indian border were routinely hijacked and passengers massacred. While Nanda and his mother waited on the platform for a train to Jammu, Kashmir, the station was bombed. The family gold, which had been stashed into a bag for the journey, was abandoned as Nanda and his mother fled to safety. They spent the next months in Jammu and then walked the Grand Trunk Road alongside fellow refugees as they borrowed money and stayed in camps. Their eventual reunion with family members in East Punjab was extraordinarily sweet as Nanda and his mother had been feared dead.

Nanda’s formative years were spent in New Delhi. After placing first in his LLB class at Delhi University, he came to Chicago to earn his LLM degree at Northwestern and later went to study as a postgraduate fellow at Yale Law School. While at Yale, Nanda participated in the school’s first course on international human rights law in the world, taught by Egon Schwelb, then-deputy director of human rights at the United Nations. The class had no textbook; instead, Schwelb brought in treaties that he was drafting and directed the students to work on them jointly.

Intrigued by this approach, Nanda decided that when he had the opportunity to teach, he would introduce human rights law to the curriculum. Also while at Yale, Nanda interned with the UN legal division. This experience launched his journey of international scholarship and engagement that continues today.

After graduation Nanda received several job offers, including one from the University of Denver College of Law. Nanda had never traveled west and was intrigued by the idea of exploring a new region of the United States and teaching at both the law school and the Graduate School of International Studies (now Josef Korbel School of International Studies). He was also energized by the law school’s new dean, Bob Yegge, who was full of innovative and ambitious ideas. Nanda accepted DU’s offer with the caveat that he would stay for only one year, as he wanted to return to the East Coast. More famous last words were never spoken.

Prof. Ved Nanda, Sturm College of Law
I feel strongly that in life, what ultimately matters is personal relationships. For me, everything else is secondary.
Prof. Ved Nanda, Sturm College of Law

Five Decades of Service

During his first year at DU, Nanda taught seven courses, working six to seven hours to prepare for each class. Sometimes he was only a few steps ahead of his students. Two years after his arrival, Nanda received tenure, and three years later he became a full professor. He ensured that DU would become the second law school in the world to include human rights in its curriculum. He also started the International Legal Studies Program in 1972 and launched a human rights legal clinic that took on several cases, including a Russian Refusenik (a term assigned to those who had refused to abide by laws discriminating against Soviet Jews) and an amicus brief for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

In 1971, at the urging of one of his international law students and president of the International Law Society, Jonathan Cox (JD ’71), and with limited resources, Nanda established DU’s Journal of International Law & Policy (DJILP). When a lack of funds threatened the journal’s start, Ed V. Goodin, then-president of the United Nations Association of Colorado, handed Nanda a blank check with instructions to “write on it.” That generosity led to the launch of DJILP, which continues today as a premier scholarly journal at Denver Law.

While teaching at the law school, Nanda also continues to teach as an adjunct professor at the Korbel School. Currently, Nanda allows up to 15 Korbel students to register for his international human rights law class and admits several to his international law class.

During his 50 years at DU, Nanda has seen the University through some of its highest highs and lowest lows. In the 1980s, when DU was on the verge of bankruptcy, Nanda watched as Chancellor Emeritus Ritchie rejuvenated the school and set it on an upward trajectory that continues today. During the “Woodstock West,” the moniker given to the shanty village built on DU’s campus as part of a protest over the school’s decision to stay open after the Kent State incident of 1970, Nanda helped orchestrate community events designed to engage the campus in meaningful dialogue. He has also been integral in bringing world leaders and dignitaries to the campus, including the Dalai Lama and Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, former president of the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Beyond the Classroom

Nanda has also witnessed — and participated in — great change in the global community. In 1984 he was one of a dozen individuals who gathered in Sicily to draft what later became the United Nations Convention Against Torture. He has served in leadership positions in a number of international and national professional and community organizations, including the World Jurist Association, American Society of International Law, International Law Association, American Bar Association, United Nations Association-USA and Friends of India Society International. He remains actively engaged in organizations and activities that promote closer and stronger U.S.-India relations.

In the 1970s, Nanda started writing on human rights and international issues for The Denver Post — an assignment that led to an adventurous string of close encounters. While in Greece during a military junta takeover, Nanda met citizens who were too afraid to speak openly about human rights violations. In order for them to speak in a more secure environment, Nanda rented a car and drove the citizens around at night. He also reported on the condition of Czech citizens after Soviet tanks entered Czechoslovakia to stifle attempts at reform away from communism. Another time, during a period of unrest in Burma, Nanda was stopped at immigration when he tried to leave the country. During the emergency period under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, when dissent was stifled, highly placed U.S. officials helped orchestrate Nanda’s return from India after he was held in immigration while trying to visit his ill mother.

Nanda has authored, co-authored or edited 25 books and more than 200 major law review articles and chapters, donating most of the royalties to DU. He credits much of this accomplishment to his wife of more than 30 years, Katharine Nanda (JD ’81), who often helps in both research and editing.

Katharine, a Denver native, met Nanda when she was the program chair at the International House, a private club for international students and Americans with international interests. A mutual friend, Genevieve Fiore, suggested that she call and ask “that nice Professor Ved Nanda” to deliver a human rights lecture at the club. Since Nanda didn’t have a home telephone, Katharine had to track him down by calling his DU office. She remembers that he showed up to the lecture wearing a giant orange parka. A few months later they met for dinner at the only vegetarian restaurant Ved could think of — which began a 10-year courtship that culminated in their marriage in 1982.

When asked about the key to their successful partnership, Ved smiles. “Our partnership works,” he says, “because I always defer to her.”

Katharine replies, “It has worked because he is always right. It has been a wonderful partnership, and I feel very fortunate. Talk about proud.”

Ved and Katharine have one daughter, Anjali (JD, MBA ’12), who participated in the Jessup Moot Court Team and served as editor-in-chief of DJILP. Anjali currently lives in New York, where she works as corporate counsel.

Prof. Ved Nanda, Sturm College of Law
I am simply overwhelmed by and deeply grateful for the generosity of so many friends who have supported me and the International Law programs.
Prof. Ved Nanda, Sturm College of Law

Commitment to DU

Throughout Nanda’s tenure at DU, numerous institutions have tried to lure him away. He has accepted a few visiting chairs and sabbatical opportunities, but always with a clear understanding that he wouldn’t entertain a permanent position. And he has been steadfast in that commitment.

“DU has given me so much; I have been blessed,” he says. “More than anything, I feel a great deal of loyalty to this university and want it to grow and become one of the very best. [DU] has been an ideal place for me. Whatever we can do, we will do.”

Despite his bright presence in the international law community, teaching has always come first. “Teaching is everything to Ved,” Katharine says. “Actually, his students are everything. He puts them above everything, including himself. Ved’s loyalty and commitment to DU are unsurpassed. In all the time I have known him, I have never heard him say, ‘I wish I didn’t have to teach tonight,’ or ‘I wish I could put off the start of school for another week.’ He is wholly and completely dedicated to the University of Denver and to his students.”

Nanda’s teaching philosophy is simple: Students will participate in the learning process by becoming part of the conversation, learning from each other as well as from him. Throughout his teaching career, Nanda has emulated a poignant lesson learned from his mentor, Yale Law Professor Myres McDougal, one of the foremost authorities in international law: When students met with McDougal, no matter how busy he was or what he was working on, he was completely engaged and made them feel as though they were the only people who mattered in that moment.

Among former students in prominent public and private positions, many of whom remain good friends, are former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Foreign Minister of Iran and chief negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal, Mohammad Javad Zarif. At his installation as chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court, Patricio Serna (JD ’70) acknowledged two people in addition to his mother: Bob Yegge and Ved Nanda. Former students have also enthusiastically supported the evolution of Nanda’s programs and initiatives at DU, including the Ved Nanda Center for International and Comparative Law (Nanda Center), an initiative funded by Doug Scrivner (JD ’77), currently chairman of DU’s Board of Trustees, Mary Scrivner and many other ardent supporters. Additionally, students established the Ved Nanda Professorship in International Law; and Gil Porter (JD ’77) funded the Ved Nanda Endowed Graduate Scholarship Fund, which joins a scholarship funded by Ved and Katharine, The Ved and Katharine Nanda Endowed Scholarship Fund.

This article, written by Jenny Savage, first appeared in Denver Law, published twice yearly by DU's Sturm College of Law. A celebration of Nanda's half century at DU is planned for Saturday, Feb 25.