Howell You, Jackson?

BY CHRIS SZABLA

Howell Jackson ’82 at an event last year

Students and faculty got their first glimpse of a prospective Howell Jackson ’82 deanship on February 24th, when the longtime professor stepped out into public as the de facto head of the law school for the first time. In a town hall meeting, the prospective interim dean, an expert on law and finance who also earned an MBA from the Business School, moved to address many previously unanswered questions about the school’s future that had been percolating among the student body and general Harvard Law School community – and in the pages of the Record, in particular – for weeks. The departure of faculty members, issues regarding the school’s new grading system and curriculum, and lingering unease about the its finances and their impact on students – questions mostly instigated by the change of administrations in Washington and the onset of the worst recession experienced in the United States in decades – dominated the agenda.

Environmental exodus

The first question Jackson addressed was “the story with all the faculty going to Washington”. “It’s a good story,” he replied. “It means you picked the right law school”. He went onto congratulate the administration on a “terrific job” substituting in people to teach courses left by those departing for D.C. Others on the faculty, he noted, have stepped up to teach courses, and members of other law school faculties have been helping out as well.

Jackson admitted that the departure of Professors Cass Sunstein ’78 and Jody Freeman LLM ’91 SJD ’95, in particular, had left a gap in the school’s environmental law curriculum – one 1L had even emailed the prospective interim dean to ask why a student interested in environmental law shouldn’t transfer. But by the end of March, a new curriculum will be in place for the 2009-10 academic year, in which Jackson indicated that “the environmental area looks really strong”. Several former professors, he said, will return, or be recruited from other schools to teach.

According to Jackson, the school will cycle through “the top ten people in environmental law in the U.S.” in the course of Sunstein and Freeman’s absences. In addition, he expects many of the departing faculty to return by 2011, as the university only allows absences up to two years without a loss of tenure. Although “the way things are going,” he joked “maybe they’ll be back this spring”. Even in the course of the absences, Jackson indicated that only 5% of the faculty would be away from Harvard during this period – and that in any other semester, roughly a third are not teaching for other reasons.

At least one student wondered if famous faculty benefitted students at all, or merely moved to the school to do minimal teaching and mostly conduct research. Jackson responded by noting that most faculty are able to roll over sabbaticals from previous teaching posts, or that they are granted some deference for the difficulties associated with moving across the country, but that all would eventually teach students.

Curricular confidence, Clinical concerns

Beyond his reassurances about the school’s ability to maintain its curriculum in the face of faculty departures, Jackson offered reasons to be optimistic about the school’s plans for the upcoming year. For one, the administration will offer students a poll to get feedback on what classes they would like to see. The upcoming year will also mark the first time that 84% of 1L classes will be taught by tenured faculty; visitors have been more common in the past. Jackson conceded that more could be done to reduce class sizes, saying that students should be able to take at least one small seminar a semester.

“Frustrations with registration from top to bottom” would eventually lead to a replacement of the MyPlan system, Jackson said, although this could not be realistically achieved in the immediate future. “If you have a younger sibling in high school, I’m sure we can sort through [the school’s registration issues] for that person,” Jackson joked, although he said the school would do its best to clarify the vagaries of the waitlist system.

One student asked why the school would not consider offering more credits for clinical courses, which would help free up time, space, and faculty members given that students would not have to take another class to meet graduation requirements. Jackson responded that students should take a long term perspective on the changes the clinical program had already undergone – credits had been doubled over the past 25 years, particularly in the course of Elena Kagan ’86’s deanship. Still, he said, clinical credits were not cheap, compared to “200 people taking corporate law with one professor”. He did concede that there was a “question of equity” with regard to how much work students put into such courses, as opposed to the credits they got out of them.

Interviewing angst

Among the other changes Jackson highlighted was the new early interviewing program, beginning a week before schools starts, unveiled in response to earlier concerns that HLS’ on campus interviews came too late in the hiring season for Harvard students to effectively compete for jobs. While late interviews have not been a problem for schools like Harvard and Yale in the past, many students struggled to secure summer placements in 2008 as firms cut down their summer intakes in the wake of the financial crisis, which came to the fore in September. Students at schools like Columbia, who had interviewed in August, were generally safer, although firms have taken the unusual step this year of rescinding some offers.

The crisis begged the question of whether earlier interviews would return Harvard to previous levels of success, or merely ensure that it did not fall further behind relative to other law schools. “We are hoping next September is not going to be the same economically,” Jackson said.He also indicated that the school was not done implementing changes to on campus interviewing or fly-out week. Because of early interviews, the week will move to the middle of September, and may even disappear altogether if interviews are moved further back into the summer.Jackson said he considered this an opportunity, and that changes to the week could include, for example, turning it into a period of research symposia for 3Ls. Jackson also said that the need for a curricular break in the fall would be met by a reinstitution of Columbus Day as a school holiday, which it has not been for over a decade. Still, students expressed concerns about the lack of a break between winter and spring terms next year, an issue Jackson said was mandated “from the center” – the imperative to integrate the schedules of the university’s various schools, and the American Bar Association’s requirement for teaching hours at law schools.

Grading grumbles

Some students aired concerns that the new pass/fail grading system would place them at a disadvantage in law school hiring, and expressed hopes that the scheme might be reevaluated given the difficult year. While Jackson expressed sympathy for those who felt that way, he noted that the bureaucratic process of making the change had been so long and difficult that reverting it was not something the law school administration was eager to do.

Students also interrogated Jackson over the concerns that 2L transcripts – mixed between letter grades and the new system – would not translate well in a job hunt. Jackson begged 2Ls “not to ring details from the registrar” over the situation for 2Ls, who should, instead, look forward to a memo from the dean’s office. The basic answer about the translation of grades, Jackson said, was that there would be a “system of averaging” similar to the one the school has used to deal with students who have dropped out and returned, or who have studied at other schools with different grading systems for some period of time.

Still, Jackson warned, “there’s going to be a little bit of op
acity” on the issue, out of fear that students would be determined to figure out how little they could work under the new system – and still achieve the same grades. As for students who are concerned about the new system impeding their ability to improve on past mistakes, Jackson merely suggested they “work harder” this term, while the old grading system is still in effect.

Financial fears

One major fallout of the university’s financial crisis has been the cancellation of all private loans for international students, which has forced many to confront the possibility that they will not be able to return to Harvard next year. Jackson noted that he was aware of the problem, and that the school was working on solutions. Representatives of the financial aid office noted that the university was close to closing a deal with JP Morgan to ensure no student would have to leave. On February 27th, the Harvard Crimson affirmed that a deal between the university and the financial firm had been reached.

Jackson gave comparatively few indications of other effects of the financial crisis and the Harvard budget crunch on the law school’s finances as a whole. The school’s overall strategy, he announced, would be to preserve top priorities for those who were currently students – and only to cut those things which were not. Among the cost-cutting strategies that he intimated the school might pursue were offering a voluntary early retirement program, or moving the school’s Harvard Square offices back to campus. There would be no faculty hiring freeze, he believed, saying that he was confident the school would continue to hire. Free coffee, Jackson reassured, was also here to stay.

Answering a student question about whether construction on the Northwest Corner project might be delayed due to the university’s financial situation – Harvard’s expansion into Allston has been temporary halted in the wake of financial difficulties – Jackson said that it would probably not. It was difficult, he continued, to halt such projects in midstream – steel already cut to the school’s specifications was waiting to be delivered from Ohio. Jackson did give an update on the progress of the building; its underground garage was scheduled to open in June, and when it did, “about five stories” of steel would already be in place above it. The building should be complete, he said, by December 2011, when the law coop will move back into it from its current location up Massachusetts Avenue. Jackson did note that other buildings HLS had planned were not going forward at this time.

While Jackson does not become interim dean until Dean Kagan’s confirmation as Solicitor General, expected sometime soon, he assured Student Government head David Kessler ’09 that a new dean would be selected within five to six months, and that students should have a “reasonable assumption” that there would be a permanent dean by the first of July. “At least,” Jackson said, “that’s what I told my wife when I agreed to take this job.”

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