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Erwin Griswold can be a brusque, even abrasive, man, and it sometimes surprises those who meet and work with him as they eventually realize that he is also a good man and a very great Dean of the Harvard Law School. That realization will be borne home all the more with the news that Griswold is leaving Langdell to become Solicitor General of the United States.
Twenty-one years ago Griswold became Dean at a critical point in the School's history. It was immediately after the war, and the School faced great challenges and great changes. The law at Harvard required a leader to guide it into the new era and to maintain the tradition of greatness in teaching and thinking which had made Harvard Law School the preeminent legal academy in the English speaking world. Dean James Landis had resigned in confusing and unhappy circumstances. The lawyers at Harvard required a friend to help them in healing painful wounds.
In Griswold, the law and the lawyers found their man. His faculty knew that he was a man of total integrity and complete, sometimes disconcerting, forthrightness. They soon learned the dimensions of his moral courage and leadership. He defended his School and his faculty against the marauders of the McCarthy years. He spoke clearly, at a time when his words were needed, in defense of a misunderstood and misrepresented constitutional freedom, the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. He spoke and acted for the civil rights of black citizens before it was popular to do so.
He attained greatness as Dean, however, in leading the growth and transformation of Harvard Law School in the postwar years. It is important, but not vital, that the School's physical plant greatly expanded during his Deanship. Great schools can thrive for a time in inadequate buildings. It is vitally important, however, that the Griswold years saw the faculty, the library and the curriculum grow to meet the needs of the time. New areas of the law had to be studied and to be taught. Old areas of the law required fresh thinking and new approaches. American lawyers were increasingly involved in international problems. Law was for a time at the heart of the struggle for black emancipation, and lawyers began to turn to the problems of cities and of the poor and to return to neglected problems in the administration of criminal justice. The Harvard Law School evolved, sometimes slowly, sometimes painfully, but it changed and grew, grew not only in size but in stature and responsibility.
The place of a Dean in such a transformation is difficult to assess. A Dean's influence grows slowly, in subtle increments of choice, of recommendation, of support, of example. Over the years, however, a Dean can become a vital force, determining the direction his school takes. Griswold was such a Dean.
Considering the importance of the Harvard Law School to American law and American society, and the importance of its Dean to Harvard Law School, one might justifiably argue that the job Griswold is leaving is more important over the long perspective than the job he is taking. The Solicitor's job, however, is probably the most interesting legal position in the United States, barring not even a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Griswold's friends and admirers will thus understand his decision to accept this exciting and significant work, however much they may regret his departure. And they will remember that Erwin Griswold leaves the Harvard Law School the heritage of a great deanship.
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