BY JONATHAN SKRMETTI
IN THE MONTHS leading up to Dean Kagan’s appointment, the HLS faculty complained that they were shut out of the dean selection process. Faculty members argued that the process should be more transparent and that their voices should be recognized and valued by President Summers as he made his decision.
Including members of the community in the decision-making process makes sense. Not only does the faculty have centuries of combined experience in how the school works and what the school needs in a dean, but for the sake of domestic tranquility it is best if a new leader of the school begins her term supported by the community and not viewed as a usurper.
Yet the very faculty that justifiably clamored for transparency in the dean selection process maintains an impenetrable wall of silence around the faculty selection process. Students do not know who the faculty considers for hiring or on what basis the faculty decides who to hire. Shutting students entirely out of this important decision-making process is a mistake and is bad for the law school.
It’s no secret that the faculty selection process at Harvard embarrassed the law school in the latter decades of the last century. News articles derided the school’s hiring woes as the crits and the old guard squared off against each other. Students stormed the Dean’s office in an effort both to force the hiring of more minority professors and to radicalize the administration of the law school.
The situation improved under Dean Clark, though severe problems remain to this day. Although the law school has hired several talented professors over the last few years, it has passed over many other extraordinary candidates. HLS has been blessed with a string of exceptional visiting professors who are much beloved by their students as both great teachers and great thinkers. Those professors finished their visits and headed back to the lucky institutions they call home. Students who took a class with such a professor and returned overwhelmingly positive evaluations were left thankful for the opportunity to learn from the professor but frustrated by the faculty’s failure to bring a great new addition to the law school.
It may be that the faculty’s reticence to discuss the hiring process stems from their fear that the situation could degenerate back to those bad old days if the broader HLS community mobilized around faculty hiring. I imagine the faculty is also sensitive to the future career prospects of potential hires and does not want to make public an enumeration of candidate shortcomings.
But given the opacity of the procedure and the outcome of the past rounds of hiring, it is easy to believe that at least some of the decisions have been made for inappropriate reasons. For example, HLS has produced many of the brightest and most productive conservative public law scholars in the country, but none of these proud and accomplished alums teach here.
Students should not dominate the faculty selection process; unlike the invaders of Dean Vorenberg’s office I am happy to accept that. But because we are members of the HLS community with an interest in the school’s present and future who can offer an important perspective, student voices should be heard and heeded by the faculty when they make their hiring decisions. One would think that professors would care about how students respond to someone whose primary job is teacher.
Just as importantly, the faculty should not cloak the process in secrecy. Those faculty members who felt like outsiders during the dean selection process ought to be sympathetic to the similar concerns of students regarding the faculty hiring process. Students need not be privy to every detail, but the faculty should not continue to leave us in a state of absolute ignorance.
The law school needs a continuous stream of outstanding professors to retain its position at the top of legal academia. Students have identified a number of unparalleled teachers who have visited Harvard and would add to the great legacy of HLS. Seeing those professors leave and not come back, leaving behind scraps of rumors that their prospects died in committee for petty ideological reasons, alienates students from the community and discourages future alumni giving.
Jonathan Skrmetti’s column generally appears biweekly, although it will appear next week.