New, Steady Hand at Law School

Martha L. Minow brings stability despite economic uncertainty

Harvard Law School’s ice skating rink—feverishly hailed as a symbol of former Law School Dean Elena Kagan’s crusade to improving student life—fell victim last year to budget cuts.

Martha L. Minow became dean of the Law School on July 1, 2009, at a time when the institution—rocked by financial uncertainty—was left with an unfinished multi-million dollar construction project at the Northwest Corner and a shaken faculty concerned for the school’s future.

Professors worried that the Law School would be further destabilized by a major transition in the dean’s office.

A year later, faculty and alumni collectively heave a sigh of relief, as the Law School seems to have landed safely on two feet—on better ground, perhaps—with Minow’s steady hand guiding the school forward, even without an ice rink.

“I think it’s been a great year,” Law School professor John C. Coates says. “It’s a tough time for any dean to start given the financial situation.”


Minow’s tenure thus far has been marked by an unusual focus and personal involvement in the academic life of the school, since deans often set aside their own research once they take on administrative responsibilities.

Minow’s ascension represents the installation of a quintessential academic as dean, as reflected in her first year’s priorities: reforming the curriculum, encouraging collaboration between Law School professors and with the University, all while continuing her own teaching and legal research on the side.

Under Minow, offers have been extended to five potential lateral hires, budgets have shrunk only modestly, and the ideological rifts dividing the faculty in past years have not resurfaced.

In filling Kagan’s shoes, Minow has emerged as a well-regarded leader who will build on her predecessor’s reforms while advancing an agenda focused on academic programming and collaboration.

“There was a lot of anxiety about [Kagan’s] departure,” Law School professor John C. P. Goldberg says. “People worried that maybe Dean Kagan was the glue that held the place together.”


Drawing upon her experience as a long-time Law School insider and a member of Kagan’s “kitchen cabinet,” Minow has proven her ability to navigate the egos and politics of the school during what has been a seamless transition, says Law School professor Howell E. Jackson, who served as interim dean.

“She won’t make the rookie mistakes.” Law School professor Robert C. Bordone says.

Before Minow became dean, several faculty members had expressed concerns that she would be too conciliatory, citing her reputation for affability.

But those fears—which her advocates said at the time were unfounded—have not played out, even in the face of difficult choices forced upon her by budget constraints.


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