Dean Martha Minow of Harvard Law School.
Dean Martha Minow of Harvard Law School. (Photo: AM Holt)

Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School, will step down at the end of the academic year, the school announced Tuesday.

Minow has led the law school since 2009, when her predecessor Elena Kagan left to become solicitor general and later an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Minow, 62, said she plans to return to teaching and advocacy, and will complete a book about law and alternative ways to resolve disputes. She has been a member of the Harvard Law faculty since 1981.

“My plan was to do five years,” Minow said in an interview Tuesday. “I’ve had the unbelievable privilege and good fortune since I was a young professor to be devoted to teaching and scholarship. I was surprised to be asked to be dean when Elena Kagan left for Washington. I was willing to step in at that time. Obviously, that was a time of transition for the school and a time of great challenges, given the economic crisis. I was glad to do that, but I stayed longer than planned.”

Minow’s departure means two of the nation’s most highly ranked law schools are searching for new leaders. Yale Law School Dean Robert Post announced this fall that he will also step down this summer. A search is underway for his replacement. Harvard officials said they would soon launch a search as well.

“Throughout her long and distinguished career, and especially during the past eight years as dean, Martha Minow has devoted herself to making Harvard Law School stronger and better, more inclusive and more intently focused on the quest for fairness, equality, opportunity, and respect for the rule of law,” said Harvard President Drew Faust in an announcement of the change.

Minow’s eight-year tenure as Harvard’s dean has been marked by triumphs and controversies. The school maintained its No. 2 ranking in U.S. News & World Report, with a brief, yearlong drop to No. 3 in 2013.

She assumed control of the school amid the 2008 financial crisis, and her first major decision was whether to continue with plans for a new building amid fresh financial constraints. She decided to move forward, and in 2012 the school opened the building known as WCC, which houses Wasserstein Hall, the Caspersen Student Center and the clinical wing. She also spearheaded a new campus courtyard.

Minow, the daughter of former Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow, proved a prolific fundraiser. The law school had a nearly $1.9 billion endowment as of June 30, 2015.

Minow expanded the number of clinics and interdisciplinary programs offered, increased loan forgiveness for students entering public-interest law jobs, and boosted minority enrollment. A third of the current first-year class are minorities, up from 27 percent in 2009.

“One of my biggest challenges was how to maintain our commitment that anyone who we want to recruit to enter our student body and who is qualified, can come regardless of their financial status and can pursue any job regardless of their financial background,” Minow said. “That has required financial aid and a loan forgiveness program that has been pioneering. The financial crisis really put those in question, and we have doubled down and expanded them.”

Campus conflict is perhaps inevitable with a highly credentialed and passionate student body of nearly 2,000, not to mention 200-member faculty with their own ideas and agendas. The previous academic year at Harvard Law was particularly turbulent, with students and the administration clashing over matters centered on race and inclusion.

The tension surfaced in the November of 2015 when a vandal placed tape over the eyes of black professors in their official campus portraits, which police investigated as a possible hate crime. Soon after, a group of students formed a group called Royall Must Fall with the goal of convincing the law school to remove the family crest of early donor and slaveholder Isaac Royall Jr. from its official shield. The school opted in March to scrap the seal and develop a new one upon the recommendation of an advisory committee, on the grounds that the former shield didn’t represent the school’s values.

At the same time, a group of students calling themselves Reclaim Harvard last year began an extensive campaign to boost minority enrollment, minority faculty representation, and improve inclusion and diversity initiatives. They occupied the law school’s lounge for most of the spring semester and touched of a robust dialogue about the treatment and representation of minorities on the law campus.

Minow said she has no regrets about the school’s handling of the shield debate and the Reclaim Harvard movement, and that those were not factors in her decision to step down as dean.

“I would be sad if our students were not participating avidly and actively in the issues of the day,” she said. “We prepare leaders and we try to model a form of discourse and debate. It’s my belief that if students leave this place without hearing the kinds of issues and arguments that are out there in the word, then we have done something wrong. I don’t have any unhappiness about debates and disputes here at the school.”

Sexual assault—and the school’s response to it—was also a source of conflict in recent years. The law school’s handling of an alleged rape of a law student by another law student was featured in the 2015 documentary film The Hunting Ground. The U.S. Department of Education in 2014 faulted the school for its handling of several sexual assault cases that predated Minow’s deanship, though the school and the university had recently revised its procedures. But even those changes courted controversy—28 members of the law faculty wrote a 2014 op-ed to the Boston Globe arguing that the changes lack due process.

Minow said Harvard Law is now regularly contacted by other institutions looking for guidance in developing their own sexual assault response policies.

“It’s one of the periods of time at the law school when I’ve been most proud, and proud of our faculty’s deliberation and attention to how to absolutely guarantee enforcement of the law and the protection of all people on our campus from any kind of harassment or sexual assault, and at the same time be absolutely as vigilant in protecting anyone who faces charges,” Minow said.

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