ACLU Chief Ira Glasser to Retire in 2001; 23-Year Tenure Transformed "Liberty's Law Firm"

September 6, 2000 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — Ira Glasser, who transformed the American Civil Liberties Union from a “mom and pop”-style operation concentrated mainly in a few large cities to a nationwide civil liberties powerhouse, announced today that he will retire in 2001 after nearly a quarter-century as Executive Director of “Liberty’s law firm.”

“I continue to feel undiminished passion for the issues that first brought and then kept me here,” said Glasser, 62, in a highly personal memorandum informing ACLU staff and leaders that he plans to retire on July 1, 2001, after 34 years with the ACLU, 23 of them as its chief.

“Retirement for me does not mean a change of career, it means the end of work,” Glasser wrote. That, he said, means more time with his wife of 41 years, his four adult children and two grandchildren, and more time for the pleasures of the beach, books, the gym, and a midweek Mets game.

Under Glasser’s leadership, the 80-year-old non-profit has remade itself into a truly national organization with expanded legal and legislative programs, powerful communications programs, a growing $30 million endowment, a strong management system, and staffed offices covering every state as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Though aptly described as a “First Amendment absolutist,” Glasser is equally fierce about fighting discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation and defending reproductive rights. Over the years, he steered the ACLU more substantively into those areas with the establishment of new programs and projects. He was particularly active in making racial justice a core concern of the ACLU.

Organizationally, he vastly increased the amount of money raised annually — from $4 million in 1978 to $45 million in 1999 — and fought to change the way that money was distributed so that small affiliates like Mississippi and Montana were adequately funded.

“The growth of the ACLU’s national office programs is thrilling and important,” Glasser said, “but without the simultaneous growth of an ACLU presence everywhere that people live, civil liberties victories would have remained inaccessible to most Americans.”

Twenty years ago, nearly half the states had no staffed ACLU offices and there were fewer than 35 lawyers on the ACLU payroll in the entire country, compared to more than 100 today.

Now, people from small towns to large cities in every state can pick up the telephone to tell their local ACLU about incidents of unfair treatment, racial discrimination, police abuse, and restraints on free speech, religious liberty, reproductive freedom and gay rights.

“Ira Glasser brought to the ACLU a genuinely rare combination of intellectual leadership and managerial skill,” said ACLU President Nadine Strossen. “His qualities as a civil liberties visionary and an organizational architect are what enabled him to fulfill the ACLU’s mission, and what will allow the ACLU to continue its work into the next century.”

“The infrastructure to defend fundamental rights that Ira Glasser leaves us is truly a legacy of liberty,” Strossen said. “It makes us confident in our ability to manage the transition and find an able successor.”

But no heir apparent waits in the wings, she said.

As national president of the ACLU (a non-paid, non-managerial position), Strossen will chair an ACLU screening committee which, with the assistance of the Boston-based executive recruitment firm Isaacson/Miller, will make a hiring recommendation to the national board.

“What we are looking for in our next leader,” Strossen said, “is someone who can preserve Ira Glasser’s record of extraordinary institutional growth and issue leadership and safely navigate the ACLU through the exciting and uncharted civil liberties waters of the 21st century.”

Glasser, a non-lawyer with a graduate degree in mathematics from Ohio State University, began his ACLU career in 1967 as associate director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. He spent 8 years as the NYCLU’s executive director before his appointment as chief of the national ACLU in October, 1978 at the age of 40.

As only the fifth executive director in the organization’s 80-year history, Glasser took on leadership of the ACLU at a time when the country was moving into a new political era. The heady legal victories dating from the Warren Court years were experienced as defeats by others, and by the mid-1970’s opponents began to organize resistance to the rights movement — and to the ACLU.

It was also a time when the ACLU was facing a serious financial crisis. In December 1978, the organization was more than $150,000 in debt even after layoffs and cutbacks, with no financial reserves and the daunting task of raising the funds for its projected annual budget of $4 million.

With no fundraising, finance or public education departments, many unstaffed states and a loose affiliate structure, many of whose low-paid directors had a high turnover rate, Glasser became the chief executive of an organization with an indelible place in history but an uncertain future.

Glasser began his “revolution from within” by overhauling the organization’s fundraising system and financial structure so that membership and foundation income grew and was distributed more equitably among all affiliates, large and small. The moves he initiated were not without controversy, but today, with a $45 million budget (10 times what it was when he began), a large and growing endowment, and stable programs in every state, no one argues with the results.

Under Glasser’s guidance, the ACLU also shifted from a nearly exclusive reliance on litigation to a program that includes influential lobbying at the Congressional and state levels, a powerful fundraising department and a broadbased public education program that uses the modern tools of advertising, polling, and the World Wide Web.

Glasser also oversaw the ACLU’s transformation into a truly diverse organization that did not merely advocate, but actively implemented, the principles of affirmative action. Today, the ACLU’s staff and leaders reflect in practice, as well as in principle, the organization’s values of equality, and the national staff is integrated at all levels in a way it was not when Glasser took over in 1978.

While managing the extraordinary changes within the ACLU, Glasser maintained a high public profile outside. Throughout his tenure he was a frequent guest on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line,” the “Donahue” show and other news programs, a widely published essayist on civil liberties principles and issues, and a spirited public speaker.

In 1991, Glasser published Visions of Liberty: The Bill of Rights for All Americans, written to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. He is also the co-author of Doing Good: The Limits of Benevolence, published in 1978.

“We know that the struggle to adapt 18th century values of free speech and privacy to 21st-century conditions and technologies will be difficult,” Glasser said. “We also know that the vision of liberty and equality that the ACLU represents today has, since the founding of our nation, often been at war with the reality of repression and subjugation based on race, gender, sexual orientation and religion.”

“We therefore expect the struggle to continue, but we look forward optimistically to that time, still distant but now so much closer, when it will be easy to speak freely, normal to be treated fairly and safe to be different from the majority — everywhere in America,” he said.

Headquartered in New York City, the ACLU has 51 staffed affiliates and more than 300 chapters nationwide, and a legislative office in Washington, D.C. Its combined annual budget is approximately $45 million.

Founded in 1920 by Roger Baldwin, Crystal Eastman, Albert DeSilver, Jane Addams, Felix Frankfurter, Helen Keller and Arthur Garfield Hayes, and others, the ACLU celebrates its 80th anniversary this year.

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