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Harvard Law School has a history of acrimonious relationships with its administrators, but when Martha Minow was appointed dean this summer the chatter in the faculty canteen was overwhelmingly positive.
“In terms of reactions this was pretty good,” said former Dean Robert C. Clark. “When Dean [Elena] Kagan was appointed there was some griping among the faculty that never got in the press, and certainly when I got appointed there were wild denunciations.”
It’s hardly surprising—Martha Minow has a warm reputation and a smile that comes easily, an endearing quality for one of Harvard’s most prolific legal scholars.
In Cambridge, she’s served for years on the appointments committee that helped poach some of this nation’s most prestigious legal scholars, including Cass Sunstein and Laurence Lessig. She chaired Kagan’s curriculum reform committee that revamped the school’s curriculum. And through all this work, she has shied away from the spotlight.
But in July, at the close of a secretive search process, Minow shed her usual behind the scenes role to succeed Kagan as Dean of the Law School.
Minow steps into the shoes of the most popular Harvard Law School Dean in recent memory. Her predecessor Elena Kagan has been credited with vastly expanding the faculty, presiding over a period of wildly successful fundraising, and healing rifts among faculty after decades of ideological conflict at the school.
“Her shoes are bigger than mine—and she wears heels,” Minow quipped.
But Kagan benefited from an environment far removed from today’s climate of precipitous endowment losses and spending curtailment. Minow faces the unenviable task of reconciling shrinking spending with a period of rapid, immense change in the legal industry that has altered the way law schools operate. As a result, some fear that as the school shrinks its budget, spectres of the school’s ideological battles of the past might resurface.
Minow says it was the idea of justice that first drew her to legal scholarship.
“I came to law school because I care about justice,” Minow said. “The question of justice should be present in the classroom, present in the work of scholars, present in the career aspirations. What justice is, of course, is a very complicated matter.”
It’s a passion colleagues like Kennedy School Professor Mary Jo Bane single out as one of Minow’s central qualities.
“I know that she is committed to a culture of public service and a culture of advancing justice,” said Bane, who spoke with Minow shortly before she assumed the Deanship. “I remember that she said, ‘What I really care about is justice, and what a law school ought to be about is justice—and I want to bring the Law School together around that.”
But in the wake of the financial crisis and the subsequent recession, practical pressures once foreign to the school have pushed their way to the fore.
The large firms that traditionally employ scores of Harvard Law graduates have been particularly hard hit by the recession, prompting growing unease among students and administrators.
And as recruiters have dwindled on campus, some students have even had difficulty finding jobs, something previously unheard of at the Law School.
“This is obviously a turbulent time for legal markets across the board from large multinational law firms to public interest jobs, and also government jobs,” Minow said.
As a result a movement has emerged at Harvard to reform the legal services industry at nearly every level—from the way associates are recruited to the way law firms bill and interact with their clients.
For the Law School, that could mean radical changes to the recruiting process, with some proposing a system that would match students and firms by evaluating both of their preferences.
Minow declined to take a position on the reform movement but emphasized the work of a committee headed by Law School Professor David B. Wilkins ’77, which is tasked with considering reform proposals and producing a report on their findings. In conjunction with those conclusions, Minow said, Harvard Law will “take a leadership role in the profession.”
A CONFLICTED HISTORY
In the midst of Harvard Law School’s darkest days, then-Dean Robert C. Clark used to regularly pace the school’s corridors to rally his faculty around controversial decisions, a lobbying effort driven by intense ideological and methodological divides at the School.
For years, the Law School had been known as “Beirut on the Charles,” a moniker referring to the vicious academic infighting that made many liken its acrimonious atmosphere to the brutal civil war in Lebanon.
So after faculty hiring meetings Clark would walk around the school meeting with faculty to build support for and acquiesce to hiring decisions.
“My problem was a faculty at war and hostile alumni,” Clark said.
During the worst periods of tension at the Law School, faculty refused to approve hiring decisions because they feared that allowing the school to hire someone with an opposing methodology or ideology would limit opportunities to hire academics with their own outlook. This log-jam resulted in a shrinking faculty at one point in the school’s history.
Clark began a period of faculty growth but contended with ideological and methodological divides that permeated the school throughout his tenure.
With the rapid expansion of the faculty under Kagan’s tenure some of these barriers began to disappear. As the number of appointments increased, faculty no longer feared that positions would not be available for professors with similar methodologies and ideologies.
“When the opportunity to make appointments is scarce, then members with strong ideological commitments are likely to think that with every appointment we make who doesn’t employ my preferred methodology I’m afraid that it will be at the expense of someone who practices my methodology,” said Professor Richard H. Fallon.
But rapid growth cannot be sustained forever, and with budgetary concerns weighing heavily on administrative decisions, Law School officials have said that the faculty expansion under Kagan has to end.
With the decrease in hiring comes the fear that rancor might return to the North Yard.
“We had an appointments logjam prior to Kagan,” Fallon said. “We will not be able to make as many appointments, and there may be some fear of sliding back into logjam.”
Minow—who said the Law School will likely appoint between two and 8 positions—downplayed the likelihood that tension over faculty appointments will return and said that the methodological battles of the 80s are a thing of the past.
“It’s not the nature of our current conversation,” Minow said.
But concern among the faculty remains.
“I think seeing how the faculty deals with a world with fewer appointments will be an important issue,” said Mark V. Tushnet ’67, a Law School professor and member of the appointments committee. “That’s not saying that it’s going to be an issue, but it’s an issue that will be evidently different.”
—Staff writer Elias J. Groll can be reached at email@example.com.
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