The last time Harvard Law School (HLS) had a comprehensive curricular review was in 1870—the Franco-Prussian war was just getting underway. Then, Dean Christopher C. Langdell instituted the first-year curriculum, consisting of contracts, torts, civil procedure, criminal, and property law, that has stood as the hallmark of first year American legal education to this day. Although Harvard can all too easily rest on its laurels, it is refreshing to see such decisive action emanating from the legal scholars here in Cambridge. We commend HLS Dean Elena Kagan and the HLS faculty for ensuring that our University can act as a harbinger of change for higher education.
Over the next three years, HLS plans to condense the standard first-year offerings first put in place by Langdell, Harvard College Class of 1850, and introduce courses in international and comparative law, legislation and regulation, and “problems and theories”; it also will implement a January Term for its first year students (one already exists for second- and third-year students). While no single piece of the review is unprecedented in legal education, the breadth of change is. That the HLS Faculty unanimously approved the review, which had its share of unconventional—if not outright controversial—proposals, is a testament to exemplary leadership and thoughtful procedures.
What, if anything, can the College take away from the HLS review as it attempts to overcome the controversies and hang-ups that have mired its own review? While the analogy is hardly perfect (for starters, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has nearly 700 professors while HLS has about 80) it is clear that the relationships among faculty members and between Deans and the Faculty are critical to the success of curricular reform.
The HLS review was hardly a model for transparency; it had its genesis in private weekly dinner sessions between Kagan and several professors, and no interim reports were released. But trust and congeniality among colleagues allowed for the triumph of a successful review, which had every faculty member satisfied with a compromise. As FAS undergoes a second round of debate on General Education, there will be no shortage of contentious issues. We hope that the same spirit of compromise and civil discourse help bring the College’s reform to an agreeable conclusion.