Dean Manning Unresponsive and Deceptive in Crucial Debate Over the Law School’s Mission

Despite pitching “vigorous, lively discussion” at Harvard Law as his top priority, Dean Manning has repeatedly refused to engage with the ongoing debate over Harvard Law’s contribution to what some alumni are calling “the crisis of legal inequality.”

Last year, the Harvard Law Record’s Pete Davis published a book-length report entitled Our Bicentennial Crisis: A Call to Action for Harvard Law’s Public Interest Mission, which documented Harvard’s failure to address the mass exclusion from legal power for the average American in the criminal justice, civil justice and political systems. The report included several reform proposals through which HLS could potentially remedy its role in this legal crisis.

Harvard students have hosted several events over the past year highlighting The Record’s report, and Dean Manning has been conspicuously absent from each one.  Dean Manning’s responses to inquiry about The Record’s report refuse to mention the report itself, do not address the report’s findings, and have attempted to direct attention towards misleading and irrelevant data. Dean Manning has also refused to meet with one of the law school’s most influential alumni, Ralph Nader, about the report.

“You would think that Dean Manning, as the elder, would like to seriously engage intellectually and factually with the first major report on Harvard Law school by a law student in over a hundred years,” Nader said. “Alumni who are reading this report are impressed, encouraged, and waiting for a reply from his Deanship. It’s now been over a year, plenty of time for cognition and wisdom to emerge from the office of the Dean of Harvard Law School.”

Last year Nader penned a letter with six other distinguished alumni asking Dean Manning to respond to The Record’s report.  Manning’s response did not mention the report at all, and did not answer the alumni’s questions about holding a public discussion on the report’s findings.

Dean Manning’s refusal to engage with the Harvard Law community on the legal profession’s corporate interest crisis comes after a consistent campaign marketed the Dean as someone committed to fostering debate and discourse above all else.

In announcing Manning’s appointment, Harvard University President Drew Faust highlighted his “unusual capacity for creating conversations and connections across lines of difference, and [his] deep appreciation for a wide range of perspectives and methods.”

“The role of the Dean is to support and facilitate vigorous, lively discussion,” Dean Manning told The Record last year. “It’s especially important for lawyers to think seriously and respectfully about opposing viewpoints.”

In fall of last year, Manning told Harvard Law Today that his first of three goals for his tenure was to have HLS “continue to be a vibrant, exciting, electric environment for people to learn, to exchange ideas, and to help shape and define the large questions of today and tomorrow.”

In the summer of 2018, Dean Manning re-stated this sentiment in Harvard Law Today: “Harvard Law School stands for open debate and the clash of ideas.”

HLS students themselves were optimistic after this campaign. But when it comes to one of the legal profession’s most pressing issues, the widespread inability of the public to access democratically enacted laws and legal rights, Manning has not just refused to engage, but has also actively steered the conversation away from student concerns. In some cases, his statements have been outright deceptive.

Manning has consistently ignored the substance of criticisms in The Record’s report through sleight of hand: citing the pro bono work that Harvard Law students do during their time at HLS, despite the fact that the report never asserts that Harvard Law students are lacking in pro bono output during their time in school.

When asked about his refusal to engage with the substance of The Record’s report, Dean Manning told me, “I am a bit puzzled by your saying I’ve not engaged with the issues. As Pete indicated in his recent post in The Record, I gave a statement to The Crimson and wrote to Mr. Nader.”

The Record article cited by the Dean as evidence of his engagement does not, in fact, assert that Dean Manning engaged with the report’s findings. In fact, under the subheading “Silence From the Administration,” the article specifically charges that Dean Manning’s statements “ignored the content of our critique and, as instructed by the administration’s public relations office strategy regarding our advocacy, has simply cited Harvard Law’s pro bono statistics.”

Dean Manning also repeatedly cites misleading statistics about Harvard Law’s assistance to public interest graduates. 

“Our LIPP program—which provides debt relief to graduates with lower incomes and thus primarily benefits those in public interest and government jobs—has been the fastest growing part of our budget,” Dean Manning wrote to me over email, sharing previous comments given to The Harvard Crimson. “Over the ten-year period from FY2008 through FY2017, LIPP funding increased at a compound annual rate of 15.8%, growing from $2.6 million to $9.8 million.  In that same period, the number of graduates receiving LIPP grants has increased from 332 to 681.”

The increase in LIPP would seem to indicate that Harvard Law is providing debt relief to public interest students at greater rates than ever.  But tuition increases over that same period dwarf the increase in LIPP subsidies. Tuition has increased at least $14,000 over the same time period, by a conservative estimate, amounting to over a $22 million revenue increase for the school, and increased debt burden for students.  Since LIPP funding is bound to increase as student debt burdens increase, the LIPP funding is just as likely evidence of higher debt burdens as it is an increase in generosity.

In fact, the timeline cited by Manning includes the period in which Harvard disbanded its “Public Service Initiative” (PSI), which gave 3Ls free tuition if they promised to work in public interest for five years after graduation.  It would be expected that when the program was disbanded in 2009, student debt burdens increased and were shifted onto LIPP.  The PSI’s cancellation was detailed in The Record’s report.  Dean Manning’s statements implying that this period represents an increase in debt relief, rather than an increased debt burden, appear contrary to the facts.

Dean Manning still has yet to answer two critical questions posed to him by several distinguished alumni:  Do you intend to present a detailed response to this rare student report and do you intend to have a general meeting with the students for a public discussion?

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