Harvard Law on the right strategic path

BY JAY ’01

Last week, I ran into a couple folks from my HLS graduating class in the Washington, D.C. subway. Amidst the tight security and sense of loss that has enveloped our nation’s capital since the recent terrorist attacks, their faces brought back a flood of memories from happier days before the world turned upside down when we were all in Cambridge — studying in Langdell, hanging out at Cambridge Common, playing pool in the Hark.

As I was leaving HLS this past June, I felt a little jealous of those remaining. I didn’t envy the fact they still had to write their 3L papers, but I knew they were about to enter a new, promising chapter in our school’s history. Students, faculty and administrators had spent the last several years working on ways to improve an already first-rate institution. Exhaustive surveys, countless town hall meetings, and often heated debate marked our most recent strategic planning process, and the product was one of the most significant and interesting periods of self-reflection Harvard Law has witnessed.

As I prepared to graduate, the results of strategic planning were tangible and exciting. Even if everyone didn’t agree on the results, it was difficult to deny that HLS was approaching another century with a long overdue spirit of innovation and experimentation. One-L class sizes were being slashed, law colleges were being created to facilitate greater community among students, faculty leaders were being named to improve student advising, LIPP was being significantly expanded, and a pro bono requirement was being implemented to reaffirm Harvard’s commitment to public service. Plans to institutionalize academic feedback, internationalize our curriculum, reform the troubled 3L paper requirement and expand electives were afoot. A concrete program to address the much-maligned HLS physical plant was readied. And this was all just for starters.

The strategic planning process, and the sense of change and fluidity it engendered, spurred several other important changes. Students worked with Dean Clark to overhaul Hemenway Gymnasium and add recreational amenities to common spaces and dormitories. The registrar’s office implemented technical improvements to our registration processes. Student groups joined forces in the “Diversity Initiative” which led us to create, among other things, a much better-organized minority student recruitment effort this past spring.

Achieving all this wasn’t easy. Constructive cooperation between students, faculty, and administrators was essential. The three groups sometimes disagreed on strategic planning proposals. But countless students were involved in the process at every step — attending town hall meetings, joining focus groups, sitting on committees, filling out surveys, e-mailing professors and joining campaigns sponsored by student groups like the Law School Council, SPIN and Catalyst. Hundreds of students signed the LSC Bill of Expectations reform plan (which was presented to the faculty, and is now being preserved for posterity in Craig Anderson ’02’s apartment), and each of its five planks were at least partially addressed. We didn’t get everything we wanted. In judging the success of strategic planning, however, it is important to remember everything we did accomplish. HLS is an old institution where change has never come easily, but we made significant strides in the right direction laying the groundwork for future progress.

Nonetheless, it is still fashionable for some to single out HLS administrators for unfair criticism. Before you accept those criticisms, however, remember that the picture is not as clear as some try to portray. Take our Dean Clark, for example.

Many of us, like myself, who support grade reform and the living wage may disagree with Dean Clark on those issues. But I also watched him announce far-reaching expansions of LIPP each of my three years in law school, and I was impressed. I’ve heard him passionately argue for the valuable benefits of diversity in recognition of the vast contributions American minority and foreign students make to our school, and I’ve believed in him. I’ve seen him endorse student initiatives from the Hemenway purchases to last spring’s minority student recruitment efforts, and I’ve been grateful to him for that support. Like so many of our faculty members, Dean Clark has dedicated much of his life to our school. Strengthening student-faculty cooperation seems to me the only way to build on the progress of the last several years.

Harvard Law is a special place, with a rich tradition of academic excellence. The world has changed, however, and HLS must adapt. Adapting to those changes, while simultaneously preserving our rich academic traditions, is an ambitious undertaking for our current and future students. It’s a challenge worth taking, however, because you will most likely miss the place when it comes your turn to leave. I know I do. And that’s probably why even as I look out at the beautiful monuments of our nation’s capital outside my office building, I still think of buildings with names like Wyeth, Harkness and Gropius every single day.

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