In almost every way, John F. Manning ’82 is the very image of a Harvard Law School dean. With two Harvard degrees, a Supreme Court clerkship, years of administrative experience at the school, and well-regarded scholarship to his name, Manning checks all of the expected boxes for the leader of one of the country’s preeminent legal institutions.
Except one. Manning is a conservative.
Beginning this summer, Manning took the helm of a school once labeled the “Beirut on the Charles” for the heated ideological warfare among professors. Today, while professors’ intellectual disputes no longer garner analogies to violent conflict, student and faculty debates frequently result in campus protest and opinion pieces in national media outlets.
It will fall to Manning, a textualist who clerked for former Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin G. Scalia, to lead a school not known for its modesty.
Jeffrey R. Toobin ’82, a former Crimson editor and legal expert for The New Yorker, said that he thinks Manning’s conservatism will be beneficial for the school.
“For the preeminent law school in the country, I think it’s useful not to have a single political identity and John’s appointment reflects that,” Toobin said.
But even as his academic scholarship distinguishes him from many of his avowed liberal predecessors, Manning will draw from years of experience as the deputy dean under former Law School Dean Martha L. Minow. Well-liked by many of his colleagues on the faculty, Manning said his priorities include fostering debate at the Law School, reviewing the school’s curriculum, and deepening the school’s sense of community.
“Being dean of Harvard Law School is a really hard job — there are a lot of demands on your time, a lot of constituencies that need to be satisfied — it’s like being president of a small college,” Law School professor Richard J. Lazarus said. “I think that people are very enthusiastic.”
Manning, who graduated from the Law School in 1985, spent his early legal career clerking for Robert H. Bork on the US Court of Appeal for the DC Circuit, and for Justice Scalia during the 1988 October Term.
After serving in the Department of Justice and working briefly in private practice, Manning held a professorship at Columbia until 2007 when then-dean Elena Kagan invited him to teach at Harvard. The appointment was part of Kagan’s effort to hire conservative faculty members at the school. In 2013, Manning became Deputy Dean of the Law School, a post he held until he assumed his deanship in July.
At the center of Manning’s conservatism is textualism, a theory of constitutional interpretation focusing on the text of the document, rather than on external factors like historical intent. Manning has published a series of articles over the course of his career supporting this interpretive theory. He is also an expert in public law and the separation of powers.
Unlike his predecessor Minow, who frequently said her academic scholarship informed her approach to the deanship, Manning said his textualist legal scholarship will not affect how he leads the Law School.
“My job is to foster a large community in which there are lots of different perspectives, approaches, and methodologies,” Manning said. “What I do for my scholarship has nothing to do with what kind of things I’ll support as dean.”
Though Manning’s ideologies fall outside the liberal slant of the Law School’s faculty, he has been well received as he’s assumed his new role, Lazarus said.
“The fact that he was so universally embraced by the faculty and by Martha Minow, and by President Faust, even though he does have that kind of bent, shows you how good they think he is,” he said.
Lazarus said Manning is open to ideas from across the ideological spectrum and prizes intellectual debate and disagreement.
“While he has some views on things, he is unbelievably celebratory of people with different views,” Lazarus said. “There’s nothing at all limiting or exclusive about him — he is a real academic. He loves academic debate, he loves academic discussion, he doesn’t just promote all his ideas.”
Because Manning served as Deputy Dean before his July appointment, he is no stranger to the Law School’s corner office. In that role, Manning said, he worked closely with Minow, his predecessor, and learned a great deal about the Law School and University at large.
“You get to know well the senior staff and you get to know the curriculum and you get to know all aspects of the school,” Manning said. “I worked on curriculum, I worked on appointments, I worked on pedagogical reform.”
Manning was also part of the working group that considered accepting the GRE as an admissions test in place of the LSAT, a policy that the Law School adopted in the spring. He also serves as a member of the University-wide Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging.
Familiarity with the trappings of the deanship has allowed Manning to jump right into the job. He has begun hosting “Meals With Manning” lunches with students and staff on a weekly basis to build relationships and solicit ideas and feedback from a wide range of Law School constituencies.
Law School professor Bruce H. Mann, who chaired the school’s Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, said Manning began his tenure by “casting a wide net.” He met individually with all 114 members of the Law School’s faculty, and other staff and administrators, over the summer.
David A. Azcarraga, the president of La Alianza, the Law School’s affinity group for Latino students, said that Manning has also made it a point to attend more student group meetings. Manning also met with leadership from Lambda, the Law School’s BLGTQ student group, in September when members of the group staged a protest of military recruiting on campus, which they argued is discriminatory against transgender students.
Adrian D. Perkins, the Law School’s student government president, said that he has a good relationship with Manning going into the year because he knew him from his first-year classes. He said he thinks he’s done a “fantastic” job so far, and hopes that his current commitment to hearing student voices will continue.
“He’s hit the ground running, he’s been very attentive to student voices,” Perkins said. “Thus far he’s promoted an environment of inclusiveness, so I hope that that continues, and also emboldening students to be leaders in the environment and have voices.”
In front of a crowd more than 100 people in early September, Manning called for Harvard Law School to move on from its “evil” past in pursuit of a “wiser...fairer...and more decent future.” He was one of several speakers at the event unveiling a new memorial for the slaves of the family that endowed the school more than 200 years prior.
As the Law School enters its third century, it continues to confront its own history—whether that be its legacy of slave ownership, teaching methods in the classroom, or approach to admissions.
In March 2016, the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, voted to remove the Law School’s seal, the crest of a formerly slaveholding family that had become the subject of debate and protest at the school. While Manning said the school has yet to decide on an exact protocol on the symbolic change, he’s working with a variety of Law School constituencies to understand the path to a more inclusive community.
During the search for Minow’s successor, several affinity groups at the Law School endorsed David B. Wilkins ’77 for the deanship, arguing that he was the best-prepared to modernize the school’s curriculum.
Paavani Garg, the president of the Women’s Law Association, said that she and her organization are looking forward to working with Manning, and are not particularly concerned by the fact that the was chosen for the deanship rather than Wilkins.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t think that anyone else wasn’t the right candidate,” Garg said. “It wasn’t an exclusive type thing, and while it’s sad to see Professor Wilkins not get the role, we’re still looking forward to working with Dean Manning.”
Manning also said he plans to address the findings of the school’s Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, which were released in June. Over the summer, the Law School started working to improve mentoring and advising programs for first-year students.
“The value added by mentoring and advising is not evenly distributed across the population and the propensity to seek mentoring and advising is not evenly distributed across the population,” Manning said.
“Sometimes the people who would benefit most from a great mentor or advisor are not as likely to seek them out and so what we did over the summer is we tried to make it to create multiple opportunities for students to develop an organic, effective advising and mentoring relationship,” he added.
On top of the initiatives he will champion, he will also deal with the day-to-day obligations of fundraising for the school. In its “Campaign for the Third Century,” the Law School has raised $365 million, surpassing its $305 million goal. And while Manning is preparing to continuing soliciting donations through the campaign’s end in June, he’s also looking to the next 100 years of Harvard Law School.
“Our alumni are leaders in area after area, field after field, year after year, and now we can say century after century,” Manning said at event earlier this year.
—Staff writer Jamie D. Halper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jamiedhalper.