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Diane E. Lopez, Harvard’s top lawyer, announced on Thursday that she will retire at the end of February after serving 30 years as an attorney for the University.
Lopez, who was elevated to the role of vice president and general counsel in 2019, helped steer the University through several complex lawsuits and led a review of Harvard’s ties to Jeffrey E. Epstein, the late financier and convicted sex offender.
Though the spotlight usually fell on other senior Harvard administrators, Lopez served as an influential figure behind the scenes as the University confronted a number of legal challenges during Lopez’s nearly five-year tenure as general counsel.
The review of Epstein’s donations to Harvard led Lopez to recommend in a report that the University adopt new donor guidelines and implement clearer mechanisms for evaluating potentially controversial gifts.
Lopez led the Office of the General Counsel as Harvard successfully sued the Trump administration at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic to prevent the enforcement of guidelines that barred international students from remaining in the United States if they were enrolled in colleges and universities that moved courses entirely online.
Harvard also faced a series of high-profile lawsuits during Lopez’s tenure, including a suit that alleged the University ignored years of sexual harassment by African and African American Studies and Anthropology professor John L. Comaroff. The lawsuit, first filed in 2022, has now moved to mediation, according to court filings in November.
Lopez, who joined the University in 1994, wrote in a message to her colleagues that it has been a “great privilege” to work in the Office of the General Counsel.
“I am grateful to all of you and to the institution for providing me with a legal career that is unparalleled for the many and varied challenges we have tackled together, often in the spotlight of public attention,” Lopez wrote.
“The benefit of my many years as your legal counsel allows me to say that however seemingly intractable the challenges we face at any given time, the good work of the University will continue, as will the benefits Harvard provides to the nation and the world,” she added.
Harvard President Claudine Gay told the Harvard Gazette — a University-run publication — that Lopez has been a “wise counselor, an outstanding legal strategist, a humane colleague, and a passionate advocate for the mission and values of Harvard.”
“She has expertly handled an exceptional variety of legal matters and has helped guide Harvard through innumerable challenges with an incisive mind and a steady hand,” Gay said.
Though Lopez steered Harvard through many major lawsuits over the past five years, she did not lead the defense in the most significant case to face the University in decades: a lawsuit filed by Students for Fair Admissions that challenged Harvard’s race-conscious admissions practices.
In that case — which ended with the Supreme Court ruling against Harvard in a 6-2 decision — the University was represented by William F. Lee ’72 and Seth P. Waxman ’73, two partners at the WilmerHale law firm.
In addition to her roles in the Office of the General Counsel, Lopez served on several bodies and committees over her 30 years at Harvard. She was a member of the Crisis Management Team, the Gift Policy Committee, and the President’s Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. Lopez was also named to the staff advisory committee that helped advise the search for Harvard’s 29th president.
Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 praised Lopez for serving as Harvard’s general counsel during a “particularly active time.”
“With the superb team of legal professionals and staff she leads, she has helped Harvard remain true to its values and mission while solving problems and pursuing opportunities in the ever-changing world of the modern research university,” Garber told the Gazette.
Gay said the search for a new vice president and general counsel will begin soon. Eileen Finan, a longtime University attorney, will serve as interim general counsel beginning March 1.
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