BY GEORGE FARAH
Robert Clark was never a popular dean, and for good reason.
In August 1989, only six months after his appointment as dean, Dean Clark announced the elimination of the Office of Public Interest Advising. Clark claimed that it was not cost effective to have a counselor for public interest law jobs when only a handful of law students took such jobs. He explained, “In terms of putting our money where our mouths are, it’s a reorientation of resources away from things in the past that have been more for symbolic, guilt-alleviating purposes than to get a real result.”
The Boston Globe called the decision “surprising and embarrassing.” Only three weeks earlier, 200 first-year students, 40 percent of the class, had showed up at a workshop on public interest law. Harvard, in fact, had pioneered public interest advising for law students, hiring the first public interest counselor in the country in the late 1970s.
More than 300 law students — joined by several professors (including Archibald Cox), federal judges, Ralph Nader and others — rallied at Harvard to protest the elimination of OPIA. Over one thousand students signed a petition demanding the reestablishment of a public interest office.
Clark’s purging of OPIA, however, was only the first of many controversial decisions that outraged the student body and undermined the mission of the law school.
Clark’s predecessor, James Vorenberg, had relied on consensus to govern the law school, holding faculty meetings every two weeks. But Clark made decisions unilaterally, holding only two faculty meetings during his first four months on the job. And while Vorenberg was only an ex officio member of the appointments committee, Clark made himself chairman. Many professors were furious.
In 1992, Clark caused an uproar with his handling of diversity concerns. The Law School’s faculty was still 92 percent male and 95 percent white, and students formed the Coalition for Civil Rights to reform faculty hiring practices. When Clark hired four white male professors at the exclusion of any female or minority professors, nine members of the Coalition for Civil Rights — the famous “Griswold Nine” — staged a 25-hour sit-in at the dean’s office. Clark threatened the Griswold Nine with suspension and put them on a humiliating public trial. Clark even stationed armed police officers outside of his Griswold Hall office.
Clark’s harsh disciplining of the Griswold Nine was especially objectionable in light of his passive reaction to a glaring incident of student misconduct earlier that year. On April 4, 1991, Mary Joe Frug, a professor at the New England School of Law and the wife of a Harvard professor, was murdered. Her husband, Prof. Gerald Frug, asked the Harvard Law Review to publish Mary’s last work posthumously. The piece was published after heated debate, and conservatives who had opposed the decision fought back, exhibiting abysmal judgment. On the anniversary of Frug’s death, the Review published a savage parody of her article in the “Revue” issue. No student was ever disciplined; the administration cited the First Amendment. However, when the Griswold Nine were punished, the administration seemed guilty of having a double standard. Many believed that Clark had conveniently manipulated school regulations to protect those politically aligned with him and punish those opposed to his policies.
Students and faculty were outraged. Nine student organizations called for Dean Clark to resign, charging that he was insensitive to minorities and women. “Regrettably the current conditions at Harvard Law School are beginning to resemble a Deep South lunch counter,” read the students’ statement. During graduation ceremonies in 1992, law students lifted giant placards imprinted with the words “HLS Discriminates” and booed loudly when Dean Clark took the stage. “We all hated him,” said William Anspach ’93. “He was persona non grata at the Law School. We would throw rocks at him when we saw him, which almost never happened, because he hid from the students.” So deep ran the hostility that Clark brought Roger D. Fisher, the emeritus professor of law who brokered such monumental deals as the Marshall Plan and the Camp David accords, out of retirement to heal the wounds.
The selection of Prof. Elena Kagan to succeed Dean Clark is a welcome relief. Clark was the consummate corporate dean; Kagan, by contrast, has spent much of her career in public service. Kagan is beloved by her students, respected by the faculty and seemingly determined to govern an institution that will serve as more than a corporate trade school. Kagan will undoubtedly confront many challenges ahead, but she is fortunate to serve as dean at this particular juncture — there aren’t any large shoes to fill.