An Interview with Dean Manning

On July 1, Professor John Manning ‘85 was appointed the 13th Dean of Harvard Law School. The Record sat down with him for a conversation over the summer. Read on for his thoughts.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

The Record: I want to start out with the hard-hitting, big picture questions. What will be the effect on your teaching load this year?

Dean Manning: I plan on continuing teaching the Public Law Workshop with Professor Daphna Renan. We’ve got a great lineup of speakers. For my spring Legislation and Regulation class, Professor Jacob Gersen has kindly agreed to step in and teach that. In the first year on a new job, I want to focus on learning how to do the best job I can do. We’ll go from there and we’ll see what kind of teaching I can do in the years out.

R: One of the biggest perks of being Dean, as you may know, is a much more prominent part in Parody. How do you feel about that?

DM: Excellent. I look forward to it. I didn’t go last year, but I’m planning to go every year now.

R: What are some of the things that Dean Minow and Dean Kagan did that you’d like to continue?

DM: They were both great deans and both of them made Harvard Law School better in lots of ways. I want us to have a vibrant, electric intellectual atmosphere. There’s a lot going on in the world, and Harvard has always played a central role in shaping and participating in the questions of the day and shaping the questions of tomorrow. I want to continue to support that lively atmosphere. Harvard has always been a place that feels a strong sense of mission to teach great lawyers and leaders in all sectors of the legal community. I want to foster and support that sense of mission and innovation in how we teach and what we teach. In addition, I want to continue to deepen an atmosphere of mutual respect, generosity, and understanding. I think that’s essential to a successful law school and fulfilling legal education.

R: What are some of the questions of today that you think Harvard should be a part of?

DM: As I said when President Faust announced my appointment, the world is a non-stop issue spotter these days. There’s a lot to talk about: the rule of law in an age of populism, the importance of facts in law and public policy, the place of the United States in the world, climate change, the administration of criminal justice, race and sex equality, religious freedom, cybersecurity, and more. There are all sorts of issues in the world and we have to be at the forefront — as we always are — in talking about things that matter.

R: What do you see as your role in that?

DM: The role of the Dean is to support and facilitate vigorous, lively discussion. One of the great things about HLS is its great diversity. We have people who think about law in lots of different ways, using lots of different methodologies, from lots of different perspectives. That’s one of our great strengths. It’s especially important for lawyers to think seriously and respectfully about opposing viewpoints. At Harvard Law School the great variety of viewpoints makes us sharper and better. It enhances our contribution to truth, knowledge, and understanding.

R: In your opinion, has the current political environment made that more difficult than in years and decades past? If so, what do you wish would change? Are there any specific requests you would make of the HLS community, or of American society at large?

DM: I think it’s always important for people to work across differences.  That requires generous listening and a real effort to understand those with whom one might disagree.  It’s really important for lawyers to acquire these skills because, in my experience, the most effective lawyers are those who take their opponents’ arguments seriously and listen carefully and respectfully to their views.

R: Law students as a whole tend to refrain from speaking up publicly on the issues of the day that you mentioned. How do you view this tendency?

DM: If we have a shared commitment to mutual respect and generosity of spirit, then I think people will be more inclined to share their views openly.  I think it’s important for faculty, students, and staff to work together to create an environment that encourages such openness, from which we all benefit.

R: What do you make of the President’s comments regarding federal judges and the judiciary?

DM: As a federal courts professor, I teach that the independence of the judiciary is a crucial value and a crucial part of our separation of powers. It is a value that lawyers and those in the legal system always need to cherish and protect.

R: What do you make of the current political situation more broadly?

DM: Different deans have different views on how much they want to opine on the politics of the day. And I think there’s a range of reasonable positions on the best approach. The way I’m going to approach my deanship will be to nurture discussion and debate and to try to bridge differences.

I am a better lawyer than I am a political prognosticator. What I’ll say is that the rule of law is timeless and something to cherish. One of the great legal traditions associated with the Harvard Law School is the Legal Process school. It says that the law results from societies’ coming together to create processes by which to resolve their disagreements. Respect for those processes is the essential feature of a well-functioning polity. That is something that I think is enduring throughout all ages along with so many other great HLS traditions that have shaped legal thought and practice.

I’ve devoted my career to checks and balances and separation of powers. I think they’re of great importance, and respect for the structure of government is an enduring value. That’s something I believe in as strongly today as when I started teaching.

R: Is there anything you believe in less strongly today than when you started teaching?

DM: I’m less certain than I once was. I spent many years as a litigator, and I thought the structural issues that I studied, such as separation of powers, had very sharp lines. But after discussing constitutional law with students and colleagues for many years, I’ve learned that these issues are more complex, and there’s rarely only one side to them.

R: A lot of the HLS community was surprised by President Trump’s election. What do you think was behind that?

DM: Like everyone else, I read FiveThirtyEight and The New York Times, and all the polls and data analytics pointed in the opposite direction. I think even Nate Silver was surprised.

R: Members of the HLS faculty, such as Professors Tribe and Klarman, have spoken out publicly and privately against President Trump. What should students take away from that?

DM: The great thing about Harvard Law School is that our students hear lots of different perspectives and they should think about them and evaluate them for themselves.

R: What are some of the new initiatives that you’d like to start?

DM: I’ve started talking and listening to faculty, staff, students, and alumni. People have so many really good ideas, and we’re much stronger if we talk and listen and collaborate. So I intend to do a lot of listening on how to build and strengthen a strong intellectual culture, how to improve our teaching, and how to build a community.

I’d like first to listen and get advice. We’ll try to build consensus, though there won’t always be consensus. One of our strengths is our differences. We all want HLS to be a lively, exciting, innovative, and inclusive place, and we’ll work together to figure out how to make that a reality.