An Exit Interview with Dean Minow

After eight years as the head of Harvard Law School, Dean Martha Minow is stepping down from her role to return to teaching and research at the Law School. Her resignation is effective as of this July. The Record talked to Dean Minow about her thoughts looking back and looking forward. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and organization.

The Record: What made you decide to step down as dean?

Dean Minow: I made the decision just before the holidays. I want to participate in the events of the day. And I’m late in a contract for a book. So I’m looking forward to working on all of that.

R: You said your original plan was to only be dean for five years. What made you decide to stay longer?

DM: I’ve been very privileged to have been dean the past eight years. I felt like I was learning something new every day, and I was in the middle of several activities. We navigated a financial crisis. We finished a new building. We built ties to other disciplines across the university and beyond. We recruited some tremendous faculty members.

R: What do you hope the next dean will build upon here at HLS?

DM: Harvard is looked to by institutions all around the world for leadership. The next dean will have influence over not only Harvard but other institutions.

Those talented to come to a place such as this should be able to, regardless of their background. I hope they’ll strengthen financial aid, grow loan forgiveness, and further build the public service venture fund, which are all built upon traditions of generosity by donors and alumni.

I hope they’ll keep building on efforts to engage other disciplines, as well as nonprofit foundations and other supporters, who have helped build our current programs on animal law, Islamic legal studies, and Jewish legal studies.

And of course, I also look forward to them doing something new that I haven’t even thought of.

R: What are some things you’ve learned from your time as dean?

DM: So many things. One reason I want to get back to teaching and researching is that I’ve been stunned by the insights of colleagues who use empirical methods, such as Jim Greiner [who heads the Law School’s Access to Justice Lab], and the insights of legal historians. I’m looking forward to reading what they’ve written and learning more about history.

R: You mentioned you were working on a book. What’s the book about?

DM: I’ve been working on it for some time. It’s about law and forgiveness. What, if any, place should law make for forgiveness? Are there any unforgiveable acts? It’s an ongoing debate, and the book covers everything from interpersonal disputes to international conflicts.

R: Do you have any advice for the next dean?

DM: First, don’t let yourself be driven by your inbox. Have your own goals. You could spend all your time being reactive, instead of proactive.

Second, recognize that as dean, you’re in the role of enabling other people, faculty and students. Recognize and honor all the people who make Harvard Law School possible.

Third, it’s marathon, not a sprint. Any dean has to figure out how to manage 18 hour days and to relish it. But it’s also a chance to be the mayor of a town, to be a talk show host, to help shape the access to justice movement, to evaluate scholarship, and more. Not many jobs offer so many opportunities. Relish that variety.

R: Any final thoughts?

DM: There’s a quote from Barbara Johnson: “If I perceive my ignorance as a gap in knowledge instead of an imperative that changes the very nature of what I think I know, then I do not truly experience my ignorance. The surprise of otherness is that moment when a new form of ignorance is suddenly activated as an imperative.” To understand what you don’t know is more important than what you do know.

Jim An is the editor-in-chief of The Harvard Law Record and a member of the Harvard Law School Class of 2018.

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