A Woman to Lead Harvard Law

Editorial Notebook

As University President Lawrence H. Summers begins his hunt for a new Harvard Law School (HLS) dean, a unique opportunity for making Harvard history is within his grasp. Harvard is the country’s oldest and arguably most prestigious law school, and its new dean will hold an important role as both an academic and national public figure. The Harvard Law School student newspaper, The Record, conducted an online poll in which two of the top five vote-getters were women. With Harvard falling behind other universities in the extent of its female leadership, and for the first time having so many promising female candidates to consider, this may be the time to bring a woman to the top of HLS administration. Certainly, Summers should appoint the most qualified and promising candidate; but gender is a factor that should be considered in his decision.

In the past few years, America has witnessed an enormous growth in the number of women holding top positions at the country’s most prestigious universities. Former HLS Professor Kathleen M. Sullivan is currently dean of Stanford Law School. HLS Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter left last year to become dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. In fact, Princeton, which began admitting women as undergraduates little more than three decades ago, now has women in more than half of its top academic jobs, including university president. Women are also presidents at other Ivy League schools such as Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania. A quarter of college presidents nationwide are women.

Harvard’s female leadership statistics, on the other hand, are not as promising. Of our 10 top deans, only two are female, and this is only a recent change. In fact, in the school’s 366 year history, these two woman are among the first to break the gender barrier. Drew Gilpin Faust became the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in 2001 and Ellen Condliffe Lagemann became dean of the Graduate School of Education in 2002.

HLS, in particular, has a less than laudable historical relationship with women. By 1930 most major law schools in America had begun to admit women, but Harvard waited until 1950 before it opened its doors to the first 14 female law students. According to HLS’s 2001 data, of the 161 full professors at the law school, only 39 are women. In a July interview with The New York Times, Claire Van Ummersen, director of the office of women in higher education at the American Council on Education, said that the increasing numbers of women in college leadership have brought more women to other high-status positions. We would expect that a female dean would help to draw more female professors to HLS.

Starting a few years ago, the majority of law students in America have been female. Given that many more women are now going into law, it seems appropriate for the leadership at law schools to reflect the gender diversity of their student bodies. Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor, demonstrated three years ago that there was a bias against women in science at MIT by proving that the school had systematically discriminated against its female faculty in terms of salaries, office space, research and positions of leadership. She explained in a New York Times interview that “having women in power sends a message to young women that yes, of course, you can become the president of a university, win a Nobel Prize or do anything. Up to now we’ve been telling them that, but no one was showing them.’’

For a university with such a long history of being an exclusive institution for the “good ol’ boys,” a female leader at one of Harvard’s major schools would be a monumental step toward a more gender-friendly Harvard. Summers should strongly consider his opportunity to make an important and revolutionary statement to the world by choosing a woman to be the dean of Harvard Law School.