NBC's Ronan Farrow: 'This community … has the power to take risks'

In his recent visit to Elon Law, the Yale Law graduate and former American diplomat praised students for keeping a focus on "real-world problems" that their future degrees will help them to address.

Ronan Farrow, a child prodigy with a humanitarian heart as the son of a Hollywood power couple, had more than one reason to attend Yale Law School at the age of 18. Some were “noble,” he admits. Others? Maybe not quite so much.

He knew he wanted a financial safety net, Farrow shared Tuesday night at Elon University School of Law in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. And maybe, he said, his degree would make the world a better place.

Since graduating from Yale Law in 2009, Farrow has worked for the U.S. Department of State and, most recently, as an NBC investigative correspondent on stories that shed light on social injustices and humanitarian issues around the world. That doesn’t mean his law degree hasn’t been put to good use, despite walking away from lucrative career offers at large law firms.

“As I have gone out and experienced the world to the limited extent that I have, I keep coming back to the importance of this degree that I have, this powerful tool that so many of you in this room are about to have,” he said. “I had run from the law only to find the need for more of the law everywhere.”

Farrow’s visit on Nov. 15, 2016, was the first event in Elon Law’s 2016-17 Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series presented by the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation. In his talk, “The Power and Perils of the Millennial Mind,” Farrow lauded Elon Law for its focus on experiential education and developing an ethos of leadership among students.

He also congratulated Elon Law on its milestone 10th anniversary, and for trying new approaches to legal education at a time when most institutions are risk-averse. Results can already been found in the number of hours Elon Law students give in service to the community, the external recognitions it has received, and even the recent election of Carrie Vickery ‘09 to a District Court judgeship in North Carolina – the first alumna to achieve that honor.

“This community is just reaching it’s 10th year. You’re experimental because you’re brand new,” Farrow said. “You may be a young community, but you are formidable. You have your gaze fixed exactly on where we all need it to be – on the real world and its problems. The students here have been empowered.”

Farrow dedicated half of his time on stage to sharing his views on law school, the influence of lawyers, and what he has learned about the power of younger generations in shaping their communities. He fielded audience questions for the last half hour, answering questions related to the media and President-elect Donald Trump, his travels abroad, and his advice for engaging in social issues.

He also offered counsel to young people in the room for when they begin their careers: No, not everyone is going to be open to your ideas for change.

“When you have a system where people work very hard for many years, even many, decades and are mostly compensated in a lockstep way and earn their keep … nobody likes the young kid that comes into the room and says, ‘I want to shake this all up! I’m a change agent! I’m a Millennial!’” Farrow said. “If there’s something I’ve learned, it’s don’t try to convince people of things in the room. Don’t try to win that argument. Be gracious and polite, and keep your head down, and do your work. Then hope the results speak for themselves.”

Farrow said he doesn’t want Elon Law students to shy from addressing legal, social and cultural problems facing disenfranchised people from all walks of life. “I hope you feel the call of the real world and its greatest challenges,” Farrow said. “This community … has the power to take risks, to dare to be different, and each of the law students in this room has that power, too.”

Forbes Magazine has twice named Farrow one of the “30 Under 30” most influential people in law and policy, and New York Magazine has named him “activist of the year.” He has received numerous human rights awards, including Refugees International’s McCall-Pierpaoli Humanitarian Award for “extraordinary service to refugees and displaced people”.

His speeches on the struggles of young people he’s worked with around the world as well as his own childhood growing up amidst a high-profile Hollywood scandal have been selected among NPR’s “Greatest Commencement Speeches Ever” and Huffington Post’s top ten speeches of the year.

As an NBC News anchor and investigative reporter, Farrow founded and fronts the Today Show’s “#Undercovered” series, combining traditional reporting with crowd-sourced story selection. He has also anchored an MSNBC cable news program, Ronan Farrow Daily.

Farrow served as a State Department diplomat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and reported to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the United States’ first special adviser for global youth during the Arab Spring revolutions. He has also served as spokesperson for youth at UNICEF in Nigeria, Angola and the Darfur region of Sudan, and appeared as an expert witness before the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus.

Farrow – the son of actress Mia Farrow and director Woody Allen – achieved early notoriety as a child prodigy, starting college at 11 years old. He is a member of the New York Bar, and attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He is the author of the forthcoming “Pandora’s Box: How America Creates Its Own Enemies” from Penguin Press.

When introducing Farrow at the event, Elon Law Assistant Professor Antonette Barilla called him “a rare person who has penetrated the walls of politics and policymaking” who is a “true definition of ‘champion’ in the sense of promoting human rights and the tremendous potential and unique contributions of youth.”

Farrow, she said, “reminds us there are values to be kept and fires to be lit in promoting the betterment of society.”

The Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series presented by The Joseph M. Bryan Foundation is an integral part of Elon Law’s commitment to learning, lawyering and leadership. Endowed through a generous gift from The Joseph M. Bryan Foundation of Greensboro, North Carolina, the Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series brings accomplished leaders from a variety of disciplines to Elon to share their experiences and perspectives with students and faculty.

The 2016-17 series continues on April 13, 2017, when retired U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison visits Elon Law for a 6:30 p.m. program. Seating information will be shared early next year.