Alumni Spotlight

Philip Zelikow ‘79

Philip Zelikow ‘79Drawing upon his experiences in the worlds of law, public service and academia, Philip Zelikow has become one of the most influential voices on terrorism and American foreign policy of our time. The former executive director of the 9/11 Commission, Zelikow has held full-time or advisory positions in each administration during the last 25 years and he is now serving the Obama Administration on the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

The Intelligence Advisory Board advises the President on the effectiveness of the nation’s intelligence agencies and their preparedness for the future.

“I am flattered that President Obama thought that I could be useful,” Zelikow said. “This board has a proud tradition of nonpartisanship and operates directly and discreetly for the president. It is an entity which exists independently from the government.”

A member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 2001 to 2003 during the Bush Administration, Zelikow also served as the executive director of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, known as the 9/11 Commission, from 2003 to 2004.

The 9/11 Commission’s report was released on July 22 and made sweeping recommendations on the gathering of intelligence, but more than that it gave an accurate account of the September 11th attacks on the United States. It included accounts from Americans, minutes before they perished in two World Trade Center towers and the recollections of government officials present on the day of the attacks.

“My time leading the Commission was both stressful and rewarding,” Zelikow said. “It was a grave time for our nation. I think the report had as large an impact as could reasonably be hoped.”

Having grown up in Houston and done most of his undergraduate work at the University of Houston, Zelikow returned home to become a member of the University of Houston Law Center’s class of ’79.  He credits the Law Center with laying the foundation for his long and distinguished career in private practice, public service and academia. While attending the Law Center, he was a national and state moot court champion and an associate editor of the Houston Law Review.

“The Law Center provided excellent training in rigorous legal reasoning,” he said. “I was privileged to study under scholars as diverse as international lawyer Jordan Paust and the ‘Jedi master’ Newell Blakely, a great figure among the faculty in that era. I also recall outstanding guidance from professors like Yale and Irene Rosenberg, and adjunct professors like the late, great Rusty McMains.  The work I did at UH was enormously valuable and has served me well.”

After graduating from the Law Center, Zelikow worked as a trial and appellate attorney in Houston before going on to receive a doctorate from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Shortly after, he joined the Foreign Service.  He held posts at the Department of the Navy, before distinguishing himself as a career diplomat in the State Department.  He left government and began teaching at Harvard in 1991.

In 1998, he left Harvard to accept a chair in history and become the director of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. Zelikow is currently an associate dean leading the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He also advises the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s program in global development and, in addition to his service on President Obama's Intelligence Advisory Board, also is a consultant to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

“My career has been one that has weaved through law, public service and academia,” Zelikow said. “Those interested in this career path need to understand that it has been one guided mainly by serendipity.  My formative professional training was actually in Houston, at the UH Law Center.”