Looking back: 14 years of Robert Clark



Dean Clark’s office is starting to empty out. Almost half the bookshelves in his spacious Griswold office are cleared. Boxes stuffed with papers lie along the outside wall, with its big picture window looking out toward Pound Hall, Langdell and Hastings dormitory.

There are still several choice mementos scattered about. A jacket hangs on a chair, commemorating a worldwide fundraising tour for the previous decade’s capital campaign. The list of places on it is long and exotic: Istanbul, Taipei, Dublin, Dubai, Naples, Turin, Jeddah, Palm Beach (“where we go every January to visit the old folks – I mean, the older alums -wondering what to do with their estates.”), Riyadh, New York City, many more. Over by the desk is an old synthesizer, which then-Professor Clark used to compose over 48 jingles that he would sing to his corporations classes, along with more serious classical compositions. There are books about modern art and music, and a keyboard magazine, just in case Clark wants to upgrade to new equipment. A compendium of Clark’s calendars from the first ten years of his deanship, entitled “Time Spent,” lies on the table. Given to him by his staff, the cover is decorated with photos of Clark with Tom Cruise, dressed in a bizarre costume for the Parody, sitting with Janet Reno, standing with Siskel and Ebert, breaking ground for what is now Hauser Hall. On the wall by the door hangs a photo of famous deans of Harvard Law School. Many of them are giants of the legal profession: Langdell, Ames, Thayer, Landis, Griswold, Bok and Vorenberg. They are people who not only did a job, but helped make the Law School what it is today. One day, people may say the same about the tenure of Robert Clark, a man often accused of pandering to tradition who, in fact, sponsored a great deal of sweeping, surprising change.

Sitting in the office on a rare sunny Tuesday, Clark’s demeanor is as it usually is. He does not present the aura of a great leader or the animated oratory one might expect from the Law School’s most successful fundraiser in history. In fact, Clark’s public persona may be one of his most unusual qualities. Though a scholar through and through, his speech is plain and unpretentious, his words direct, delivery quiet, almost humble. The Dean never raises his voice. He strikes the same low, conversational tone no matter where you encounter him, whether at a speech to admitted students or the visiting committee or in private meetings. There may be no person in America more suited to the adjective “unassuming” than Dean Robert Clark.

Today, as his tenure draws to a close, Clark says the deanship will not be hard to let go. His work, insofar as his goals for the Law School are concerned, is largely completed. “It’s been a wild ride,” Clark said. “A lot of amazing things have happened.”

Indeed, they have. The student-faculty ratio has gone from 30 to 1 to 13 to 1, with a concurrent increase in the size of the student body. Four major buildings have been constructed and plans for a new quad are well underway. Langdell Library went from being a dilapidated embarrassment to, without question, the finest law library in the entire world. The number of research programs more than doubled. Almost half a billion dollars have been raised. The endowment has tripled. And perhaps most importantly, Clark says, the Law School has experienced a profound attitude adjustment.

“One of the best things about my deanship all these years is how much better it feels with students,” he said.

The same is perhaps even more true on the faculty side, as the Law School that began Clark’s tenure with the discouraging appellation of “Beirut on the Charles” has weathered the ideological clashes of the 1980s and early 1990s to emerge as a place that is hiring new and younger professors every year without the appointment fights that once stalled faculty expansion.

Change tends to come at a glacial pace in legal academia, especially at a place where its traditions are strong, its laurels a firm place to rest. But in a law school context at least, it has often come swiftly during Robert Clark’s time. A great law school, certainly this great law school, is bigger than any one man, its mission grander than any single generation’s efforts. Nonetheless, Robert Clark’s place in this story is unmistakable.

An unlikely dean

That Robert Clark ever ended up dean of the Law School, or even a legal scholar at all, might be described as an accident of history. He spent his undergraduate years at Maryknoll College, a small Catholic theological seminary, where he was studying to become a priest. Had things proceeded according to plan, according to Clark, today he would likely be running a missionary school in the Far East or South America. But Clark’s intellectual curiosity got the better of him, and not for the last time, either.

“I studied too much philosophy,” he said, “until I no longer believed in the basic tenets of my religion anymore.”

Clark’s law school career did not begin there. First, he began a Ph.D. program in philosophy at Columbia University in 1966, where he became particularly interested in the interaction between the implied philosophies of the social sciences, especially psychology and sociology. It was at Columbia that he also met his wife – another radical departure from the old path to priesthood.

But before he even completed his dissertation, Clark became restless again. He was bothered by his professors’ lack of real-world knowledge, by the overly theoretical bent of their discussions.

“I thought, ‘Why not go to law school, because lawyers really understand how institutions work?’ I went to law school to become a better social scientist. Lawyers had an edge. They were smarter than sociologists. If I wanted to be the best, I thought I had to go to law school.”

That brought Clark to HLS in 1969, “because it was the best law school, and I loved it.” Though most of his 1L year was spent completing his dissertation, Clark soon deviated from his original interests. He took an active, almost cathected interest corporate law, where he studied under Prof. Victor Brudney among others. One day, after reading an article in Brudney’s class he disagreed with about the Modigliani-Miller Theorem, Clark wrote, unassigned, an entire paper about the topic. That, his dissertation and his 3L paper would later figure prominently in the role to his deanship.

After graduation, Clark stayed in Boston, where he took a job at Ropes and Gray, where he worked in both litigation and commercial law.

“I was looking for a teaching job, but not very hard,” Clark said. “I liked practice more than I ever imagined, so I wouldn’t take anything that wasn’t very, very good.”

Then, Yale called.

It turned out that Clark’s paper had made it into the hands of some very powerful names at Yale Law School, including the law and economics scholar Guido Calabresi, and eventually, Franco Modigliani, whose theorem was the subject of the paper. By 1974, Clark found himself a professor at Yale, where he became a full professor in a scant three years.

In 1978, Clark became a visiting professor at HLS, and the Law School ended up asking him to stay.

“My wife didn’t want to move, although now she can’t imagine moving back to New Haven,” he said. “It just seemed like Harvard had more going on. For someone with my interests, it seemed like more was happening, and the University was better.” Clark was right – more was happening at HLS, but as he would soon find out, not all of it was positive. By the 1980s, the Law School faculty was plagued with bitter infighting and embroiled in, at least to the academic world, an all-out war.

“We were fighting all the time in the faculty. Mostly left-right, traditionalists versus critical legal studies versus the middle. There were a lot of promotion and lateral hiring battles…. At times in the mid-’80s, I
wanted to leave, go to Stanford. I almost did.”

Harvard Law School was not a welcoming place for students or faculty. Class sizes were enormous – Clark routinely taught corporations and finance classes of more than 250 students, and the student-faculty ratio was an abysmal 30 to 1. Unrest was rising with the student body over diversity and other concerns, and 1980 saw the start of regular April sit-ins outside the Dean’s office that continued until 1992. The faculty infighting got so acrimonious that the National Law Journal dubbed HLS, “the Beirut of legal education,” a snipe that spread beyond the legal world into the popular press.

When Dean James Vorenberg stepped down in 1989, no successor was going to be in an enviable position. University President Bok (former dean of the Law School) appointed a six-member faculty committee to advise him on the process, which included Clark as a representative of the “conservative” wing of the faculty. Much to Clark’s surprise, his name started to emerge as a candidate.

“I was a very unlikely person to get chosen as dean because of my role in the faculty disputes. I was considered an opponent of critical legal studies. I was not exactly a traditionalist, but more of a progressive – I believe in science, the scientific method, has a role in the study of law,” Clark said. “I was perceived as very risky at the time.”

The early years: 1989-1993

Clark’s early years as dean were, as he expected, contentious. Several faculty members said “pretty nasty things” to the Boston Globe, criticizing Clark as too corporate-focused, too ideological, to be a good choice.

“His appointment was regarded as a surprise because he was a conservative,” said Prof. Daniel Coquillette. “From the beginning, he established the idea that he was not going to be the spokesperson for one group.”

An early source of controversy was Clark’s decision to eliminate the public interest advising position as part of a budget-minded staff reduction. Though Clark boosted LIPP funding in the same year, and later reinstated the position, he suffered public outrage and student protests. To this day, he remains unapologetic.

“In retrospect, it was a bad PR move,” he agrees, though he defends the move. “He wasn’t seeing many students and he wasn’t getting much results.” Though Coquillette and others note that the Law School’s public interest role has been greatly strengthened over the past 14 years, the symbolic effects of Clark’s decision lingered.

One of Clark’s first priorities was to make new faculty appointments. The faculty, deadlocked by ideological bickering, had failed to hire new professors for years.

In response, Clark formed a new appointments committee and chaired it himself. “The first three or four years were totally consumed with a lot of negotiation, trying to get new appointments,” Clark said. “Those first few years, it was like being thrown into a whirlpool. So many people wanted to see me, and there was so much to do.”

The new dean recruited tenaciously, adding new faculty every single year. At times it seemed there was no limit to what he would do. He spent over 60 hours meeting with professors to convince them to hire Prof. Elizabeth Warren, who he says was considered a controversial choice despite her popularity with students. Together with the students of her Secured Transactions class, Clark made a humorous video to beg her to come, featuring the dean singing and dancing.

“Bob Clark singing, dancing and appearing in a video with a puppy? How could I resist coming to HLS?” Warren said.

When Clark’s tenure ends this spring, he will have hired 39 new professor and raised the number of permanent faculty to 81. Clark says he tried to aim the mix at bringing in disciplines that students wanted, like intellectual property and Internet law.

“My main concern was that we keep going for the best people in each field,” Clark said. “It shouldn’t be limited to left or right. That was and still is my main mindset.”

Still, Clark faced still criticism for his failure to appoint black faculty, especially women. The situation exploded in 1992, when the Law School appointment four new white men to the faculty. This led to the infamous “Griswold 9” incident, when nine students staged a 25-hour sit-in at Clark’s office. “That was only one meeting,” Clark says of the appointment of the four. Later that year, the Law School hired two female professors, Christine Desan and Carol Steiker. It would take six more years before Lani Guinier became the first permanent black female faculty member.

Clark also inherited an incipient capital campaign, already agreed upon before he took office. The goal of the campaign was to raise $150 million, then the largest in HLS history. The campaign foisted a heavy travel schedule on the new dean, who traveled to countries on six continents to raise money.

“It was all amazing for me,” Clark said. “I had never done a moment’s worth of fundraising in my life.”

Prof. David Shapiro, for whom Clark is the sixth dean he has worked under, said many questioned if Clark could make the fundraising cut. “Bob’s gifted teaching and innovative scholarship impressed us all. Yet some raised questions about his selection as our dean. Was he perhaps too reserved, too ‘inner directed,’ to borrow David Riesman’s wonderful phrase, to deal effectively with the many commitments a dean must deal with on a daily basis? My own answer, after some 14 years, is a resounding no.”

Clark himself acknowledges that he is not a “life of the party guy.” He attributes his success as a fundraiser to a few basic principles: to like people, and to listen to them; to believe in the mission of HLS; to “show up and ask them bluntly for money”‘; and to be persistent. The half a billion additional dollars in the Law School’s coffers today attests to the success of those principles. Even the first campaign, now dwarfed by the $400 million dollar goal set today, exceeded its goal by $39 million.

“The success of the fundraising was a good strategy because everyone could see that a larger pie would benefit everyone,” Coquillette said. Indeed, as the coffers swelled and money for new appointments became available, dissension waned, allowing Clark to enter the next phase of his deanship.

Building and rebuilding HLS: 1993-1998

“Everything was going better,” Clark said of the middle period of his deanship. This period saw key building projects finally occur, including the much-needed renovation of Langdell Library. “That was the biggest project of all,” Clark said. “It came out very well.”

Along with Langdell, Clark pushed through the building of Hauser Hall and the Hale and Dorr Legal Services Center in Jamaica Plain, which bolstered the Law School’s clinical programs. The Law School also added new faculty offices, desperately needed to accommodate the new appointees.

Clark also increased his role in student life. Though he had held regular breakfasts with student leaders early in his deanship, he also began getting more involved in the life of students. Clark appeared in the Parody, and has every year since, and helped begin the Public Interest Auction to raise awareness and money for public interest programs. A new building project, the North Hall dormitory, gave students a new housing option.

Strategic Planning: 1998-2004

Clark’s last years are sure to be his most memorable. Along with reducing the student-faculty ratio, his crowning achievement may well be the launch of the new Strategic Plan, some of which grew out of McKinsey & Company’s study of HLS in the late ’90s.

“In a sense, [the study] wasn’t very surprising,” Clark said. “Students wanted more interaction with faculty. They wanted better facilities – dorms, gym, meeting space. And of course, they wanted more financial aid.”

On D
ecember 1, 2000, the new plan was passed. The plan called for the retooling of the 1L sections into seven sections of 80, and the creation of a “law college” system with advisers for each. Added faculty – 15 new appointments – are planned over the next decade, along with $100 million for new facilities. This includes the construction of a new quad in the space currently occupied by Wyeth Hall, the Pound Hall parking lot, Baker House and the parking garage at the corner of Everett Street and Massachusetts Avenue. The new quad would house academic buildings and faculty offices, along with underground parking, and would be, Clark proudly notes, “bigger than the entire Yale Law School.” To help students financially, new money is demanded for financial aid and even scholarships, which as yet have not existed at the Law School. Many of the plan’s called-for increases in LIPP funding have already occurred. New money is also planned to expand international programs; during Clark’s tenure, the LL.M. program has added 40 new slots, and the SJD program has more than doubled.

“[The day the plan passed] was one of the happiest days of my life,” Clark said. “There were a lot of great debates in the process – like a Constitutional convention. It was the most nerve-wracking part of my whole deanship. So much turned on it.”

At the time, some in the faculty had argued that, rather than further increase faculty, the Law School should cut the size of the student body to improve the student-faculty ratio. Clark fought hard for a plan that would raise more money, which in turn could pay to add the necessary faculty.

“It would mean we’d be trying to be a half-baked Yale instead of a better Harvard,” Clark said of the student-cutting plan. “How can you have a great negotiation program, law and economics, human rights programs – if you’re shrinking the student body?”

To meet its ambitious goals, the plan authorizes the most extensive capital campaign in the history of HLS – a campaign that comes during a down economy. Nonetheless, when the current “quiet phase” ends this summer, it will have already exceeded its $150 million goal, putting it further on the way to the planned $400 million called for.

A complication for the plan has been the Allston issue, which raises questions about the propriety of spending $100 million on new facilities. Again, Clark fought hard for the proposed changes.

“I told [the Harvard Corporation] look, we’ve worked too long and hard. We must move ahead. If don’t move ahead it’ll be disaster…. Even if there is a move, it won’t happen for at least a decade. We need space now.”

The latter years of Clark’s deanship have been especially beneficial to students, as the 1L section changes were implemented, the legal writing course was revamped, and small improvements, like Hemenway Gymnasium, came to fruition.

But these years have not been completely without strife, either. Tempers flared during last year’s race controversy, sparked by offensive outlines posted on the HL Central web site.

“Dean Clark and Dean Rakoff have not done anything,” then-2L Lacey Schwartz told The RECORD. “There are institutional issues that need addressing.” She pointed to what she called “an institutional climate of apathy and complicity in issues of racial insensitivity and harassment.”

The Black Law Students Association made a number of demands, including reprimands of two HLS professors and mandatory sensitivity training for incoming 1Ls. The following week, over 350 students staged a protest outside Harkness Commons.

Clark responded with a mix of surprise and action. “By themselves, [the individual incidents] weren’t all that catastrophic,” Clark told The RECORD then. “There must be some sense that there’s a more general racist feeling around.”

Despite his apparent aloofness, Clark acted immediately to form the Committee on Healthy Diversity, which drew fire earlier this year when it appeared it might endorse the creation of a racial harassment policy, often derided as a “speech code.” Similarly, while Clark and J.D. Dean Todd Rakoff denied that they would directly punish the professors named by BLSA, one went on sabbatical during Fall 2002, and neither taught 1L classes this year.

The 2002-2003 academic year also saw its share of controversy. While he openly disavowed the possibility of endorsing restrictions on speech, Clark made himself a vocal supporter of Lambda’s protest against the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. When the University, fearing the loss of all federal funding, forced the Law School to allow JAG recruiting in the on-campus interviewing process, Clark became quite vocal on the issue, appearing at a Lambda-sponsored rally and sending an emotional letter to the entire community to explain the decision.

HLS and Clark’s future

Although clearly proud of his accomplishments, Clark says the Law School’s mission is far from over.

“I feel frustrated that there are certain things we still haven’t been able to do,” he said. “In an early speech in my deanship, I said that the legal system has grown enormously since World War II. Areas like environmental law, health care regulation and pension law are becoming dramatically more important. But we are still looking for good people, especially in environmental law.”

And while HLS may have no choice what to do about the Allston issue, Clark believes the proposed Allston move could help HLS radically transform itself.

“In the long term, the prize will go to that great law school which is truly a world law school. It has to be big. And that’s reflected in the Allston plan. I can’t imagine that happening here in Cambridge…. Harvard could really grow and change, really become a world law school there,” he said.

Marketing HLS, Clark said, will be another challenge for incoming Dean Kagan. “If I were staying in the dean’s job another five years, marketing would be the next big shift I my attention… One thing I haven’t focused on is getting the message out to potential students.”

When asked to assess his deanship, Clark is typically nonchalant. “‘I’m pretty happy with the way it’s shaped up mostly,” he said. “I was just doing my duty. I didn’t become dean because I thought that was the greatest thing I could do. I did it because the president asked me. I thought the school needed help.”

In the short term, Clark plans a one-year sabbatical in which he plans to read, hike and study.

“I want to gorge myself on ideas,” he said. “Read. Think. Talk to people. Start writing. I’d also like to start composing music again.” He added that he has no plans to take any jobs in Washington, though “there have been offers.” Currently, he plans to return to teaching in Fall 2004.

Asked what he would do to “get the message out,” what he would say to prospective students, Clark said, “Harvard Law School will be a place that will change your life forever, and for the better. Of that, you can be absolutely certain,”

Over the past 14 years, it is difficult to know what has changed more – the Law School, or the man who led it.

“Being a dean exercises parts of the mind and spirit you never knew existed,” Clark said. “I feel like a fuller human being for having done this.”

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