“The best part [of being dean] is working with extraordinary people at the School, from the library to my team to students to alumni. There are 37,000 HLS alumni around the world, and meeting them has been one of the most pleasant surprises,” said HLS Dean Martha Minow, who is stepping down after eight years at the helm.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Stepping down and speaking up

long read

Departing Law School Dean Martha Minow has a mountain of interests to mine

After eight years at the helm of Harvard Law School (HLS), Dean Martha Minow plans to step down and return in the fall to the classroom, where she has taught for 36 years.

Minow’s tenure was marked by digitization of the School library’s collection, diversification of the faculty and student body, and expansion of legal clinics and research programs. Among the challenges she faced were the effects of the 2008 financial crisis and a student movement calling for removal of the School’s shield because of its ties to a slave-owning benefactor. The School retired the old shield.

Minow, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law, sat down with the Gazette to reflect on her tenure, her plans to defend the rule of law, and an upcoming book on law and forgiveness.


Martha Minow

GAZETTE: What accomplishments are you most proud of during your tenure as dean?

minow: One of my goals was to continue to diversify the School. When I say diversity, I mean gender, race, and ethnicity, but also viewpoint, religion, methodology, and kinds of subjects throughout the faculty, student body, and staff. We’ve made some wonderful faculty appointments who have made the whole school better, and the student body is much more diverse. Another goal was to spread the idea of entrepreneurship and risk-taking among students. We created a public service venture fund to encourage students to imagine creating their own jobs, and we also included many courses in the general field of entrepreneurship and innovation.

We have also grown our human rights program, and our immigration and refugee clinic, which is doing cutting-edge work and at the moment is at the center of some very serious challenges in the country. We launched a veterans’ clinic to represent them in their challenges with government or elsewhere, but also to examine the problems in the way they’re treated. Other examples are the predatory-lending clinic, a research program on criminal justice, and I can go on and on.

GAZETTE: Can you tell us about the process of digitizing the collection of the Harvard Law School’s library, a process that you started in 2015?

minow: We have the world’s largest law library. It’s a treasure. I feel it is a tremendous honor and responsibility to preserve what we have but also to continue to grow the library, which means not only to continue acquiring books and periodicals, but also to push for access to knowledge of all kinds. It’s a very tough tradeoff. Do we continue to collect materials from all around the world? Or should we instead invest in new digital tools? Or try to do both? One of the great developments initiated by Jonathan Zittrain, my colleague who heads the library and the Berkman Klein Center, was to digitize our collection so that it’s made available to other people. Fantastic idea. We didn’t have the money to do it. He had the brilliant idea to build a partnership with a small startup, which put in the money to pay for digitizing but then in exchange they develop their own services, which they sell. Figuring out how to make that possible was very challenging but also very rewarding.

GAZETTE: Which goals were you unable to achieve during your tenure, and why?

minow: When Elena Kagan was dean, she asked me to lead a curriculum reform. It was the first major reform in a long time. I’m not sure we were able to do it as we would have liked because there were issues we had to take care of that were immediate.

GAZETTE: The Reclaim Harvard Law School movement calling for social justice within the School emerged last year, creating more than one controversy. As someone who has described herself as a social justice activist, how did this affect you?

minow: I was a student activist myself, and I hope our students take their passion and try to work on what they think their priorities are when they are here. It wasn’t always pleasant. There certainly were high levels of emotion, and people expected change to happen overnight. One of my goals is that our students are well prepared to understand how to make change, which means to ask the question of who has the authority to make change, and what are the steps necessary to make change without causing a backlash. And working with students who may not know all of those elements, that has been an opportunity, and sometimes a challenge.

GAZETTE: I read that you clerked for Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Civil Rights hero and the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. What did you learn from that experience?

minow: He was my hero. I went to law school because I wanted to do work in Civil Rights. I’d say there were three things that surprised me about him. He took the time to know the life story and the background of everybody in the court. The second is that he was a really good lawyer, of the sort that really cared about the law, and in particular he cared about procedure. The third thing is to pick your battles. You don’t dissent in every case. He was the best storyteller I’ve ever met, a great man, and a true inspiration.

GAZETTE: Did the controversy over the HLS shield have anything to do with your decision to step down?

minow: Not at all. When Drew Faust asked me to be dean, I said, “How long do I need to do this for?” This was not a job that I sought. When Faust said “five years,” I had five years very much in my mind. Five years came, and she said, “Would you stay?” After the election, I was thinking that I’d stay maybe another year, but the difference between being able to get back into the life of a professor, someone who is able to speak and participate in the affairs of the day, versus continuing being a dean, made me realize that it was time for me to make the change. The results of the presidential election were certainly a factor in my decision to step down.

GAZETTE: In a recent op-ed in The Boston Globe, you expressed concern about President Trump’s criticism of the courts and the rule of law. What can law schools do today to defend the rule of law?

minow: My own research has focused very much on what happens to societies in conflict, and what are the predicates for tyranny, and what are the warning signs of genocide. That’s what I work on. I worked in Kosovo, and I learned that you cannot end civil war if you don’t have in place the rule of law that people respect. Places that don’t have an operational legal system create a climate of hatred and violence, and places that have an operational rule of law keep us safe. This is as fundamental as you can imagine. When we have people in positions of high authority who cast doubts on the legal system, who invite disobedience of the legal system, who invite disrespect for the law, that’s a jeopardy to all of us. I do believe leaders in the legal profession, and that includes leaders of law schools, have an obligation to speak out.   It’s interesting to me that Associate Judge [Neil] Gorsuch, our alumnus, at a time when everyone had a camera on him, made clear he did not appreciate the president’s casting doubt on the integrity of the legal system and of judges involved.

GAZETTE: What are the warning signs of tyranny?

minow: One of the warning signs of tyranny is when people feel intimidated and discouraged from speaking out against what they see as unjust. That underscores why freedom of speech is so important, as well as the legal rights to protect freedom of speech. And for the government there must be civil services protection to keep people from not losing their jobs if they actually expose misconduct within the government. These are very important protections.

GAZETTE: Do you think those protections are in danger now with the new administration?

minow: I don’t know. I think that anyone who thinks so should speak out.

GAZETTE: What’s the best, the worst, and the ugliest part of being a dean?

minow: [Laughs.] The best part is working with extraordinary people at the School, from the library to my team to students to alumni. There are 37,000 HLS alumni around the world, and meeting them has been one of the most pleasant surprises. I’ve always thought that other than my family my favorite people were my students, but I discovered that alumni are grown-up students. It has been fantastic having the chance to interview alumni and engage them in very candid conversations about their lives and their work — people like Susan Cain, who wrote the bestseller on the power of introverts, along with leaders of companies and nonprofit organizations.

GAZETTE: Were you able to meet with Barack Obama, one of the most famous HLS graduates?

minow: Well, he didn’t come back to campus. But I have had the good fortune to see him during the last eight years because he appointed me to serve on the Legal Services Corp. [a government-sponsored organization that provides civic legal aid to low-income people], and he made the access-to-justice theme more prominent in his administration than in memory. We held meetings at the White House, and we hosted several meetings of the Legal Services Corp. here. It’s very important because it’s about putting justice at the center. And in the end, access to justice for low-income people is the test of whether or not we are serious about justice. It shouldn’t just be that people with resources can have their rights enforced.

GAZETTE: What is the worst part of being a dean?

minow: The worst is very much the sadness of people’s lives. You, as the dean, are privy to the secrets of who is ill and whose family members are ill, and on very sad occasions when people die, I am like a clergyperson presiding over memorial services and trying to comfort family members of students who are ill. There’s certainly no question that that is the hardest and the saddest part of the job.

GAZETTE: What’s the ugliest part of being a dean? You said once that being a dean was also being a talk show host. I wonder if you like that role.

minow: I love being a talk show host. Sometimes I even run my classes as if I were a talk show host in order to get people to talk because some people don’t really want to talk, and so I say, “Ok, today we’re a talk show.”

GAZETTE: What were the main challenges of your tenure besides the financial crisis?

minow: That, and saying no to people who had very good and well-framed requests for resources, and I didn’t have anything to give. The big challenge is really an existential one for higher education. We can’t continue to raise tuition at the rate it has gone up, and the amount of resources that are necessary to support the School aren’t at all covered by tuition. That’s a huge challenge. I guess I’d say that other challenges that continue is that you, as a leader, can never make everyone happy. But a good thing is that I have been a parent, and so you know that doing the right thing is not about making people happy.

GAZETTE: Can you tell us more about the book on law and forgiveness you’re planning to write?

minow: This is the book that is now way behind schedule. In 1998, I wrote a book called “Between Vengeance and Forgiveness,” which looks at possible legal responses to mass atrocities and to genocide, and compares areas of criminal prosecution, reparations, and truth commissions. At that time, South Africa had just established what is now a model for truth commissions all around the world. I wrote in my book that there should be a path that is between sanctions and forgiveness. And to my surprise some people asked me why we couldn’t have more forgiveness in the law. And that’s such a good question. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about it. I look at the possible place that law can give to forgiveness in criminal justice, international criminal justice, but also domestic criminal justice. I look at child soldiers and how they’re treated and how they could be treated. I look at the question of sovereign debts, and when they could be forgiven, and when is it actually counterproductive, or even cruel, to force a nation to pay back loans that were maybe secured by a leader who was taking money for personal gains. I also pursue the question of consumer debts, and whether there should be forgiveness for them. In addition, I’m also thinking about what’s unforgivable, what should law not let go, and I think that’s an important question. I’m also interested in the ways that law may make it more difficult for people to forgive, and when law itself should forgive, and that also includes asking what’s unforgivable.

GAZETTE: In your view, what is unforgivable?

minow: Hannah Arendt, the great political philosopher, had the view that genocide was unforgivable. It’s a persuasive case. It’s interesting that in this country we have no statute of limitations, no limit on the time period that you can be prosecuted for murder, and that’s basically saying, “We take this as an unusual crime.” Now does that mean that no murder can ever be forgiven? I don’t know. It’s a very interesting question. I’m fascinated by the movement organized by family members who have lost relatives to murder who seek forgiveness, who seek to stop the death penalty. I find that fascinating and hard to imagine that I could be capable of that kind of generosity. I hope to think more and learn more.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.

2017 Last Lecture Series | Dean Martha Minow

The Last Lecture Series at Harvard Law School is an opportunity for selected faculty members to impart final words of wisdom on the graduating class. Dean Martha Minow delivered the final lecture in the four-part series which also included professors Michael Klarman, Khiara Bridges, and Bob Bordone. The event has been organized annually by the 3L Class Marshals since 2014.