Yale Law School Dean Robert Post (Rhamelin)
In a matter of weeks, Robert Post’s name will be etched into one of the lead-paned windows lining the ornate office that houses the dean of Yale Law School. Post is stepping down from the deanship on June 30 after eight years leading the nation’s top-ranked law school. Tradition holds that the name of each dean is inscribed on a window after they vacate the office. To hear Post tell it, when the sun is at a certain angle, his predecessors literally cast a shadow over him.
Post’s tenure at the storied New Haven law school has been characterized by relative stability and growth. The student body has not been roiled by the racial tension that rocked Harvard Law School last year, in part because Post embraced changes recommended by a 2015 committee on campus diversity and inclusion. As a result, the law school this year increased minority first-year enrollment and made more job offers to diverse faculty candidates.
Post has proven a prolific fundraiser, securing more than $200 million in donations. He spearheaded the addition of the so-called Swing Space to the law campus. The building, slated to open in the summer of 2018, will house law students, add classroom space and offer other student amenities. Post oversaw the hiring of 17 faculty members during his tenure and the opening of several academic centers. He also started the nation’s first doctoral program designed to train lawyers for careers in the legal academy.
Law Journal affiliate law.com asked Post to discuss changes at the law school, his future plans, and that fancy office he has enjoyed for nearly a decade. His answers have been edited for length.
Q: How has Yale Law School changed in the eight years you have been dean?
A: When I became dean, it was just after the fiscal crisis. The endowment had just gone down more than 25 percent, and we’re a school that’s endowment-driven. There was a great deal of anxiety in the building. There was worry about the future. I think that’s not present now. I think people are confident and the school has been reinvigorated. When I started, the faculty was brilliant, eminent and marvelous, but older. Everyone recognized the need to make the faculty younger. There have been a great many young, magnificent hires since I became dean. There is an energy in the building which is palpable.
Q: What are you most proud of during your deanship?
A: My sense of this job was to make the faculty feel like they own the school—to develop a sense of authorship. I think people feel that now, that it’s their school and they’re directing it. They have a stake in all the decisions being made. You can point to a building, or a Ph.D. program or the many centers. Those are wonderful and necessary things, but the atmosphere of the place and looking at the future as our future—that’s what gives me the most pleasure.
Q: What’s the hardest part of being dean of Yale Law School, one of the most prestigious law schools in the country?
A: For me, the most unexpected part of being dean was, in psychoanalytic terms, what we call transference. You suddenly become a parental figure and are the subject of projections from everyone. That means you are blamed for things that aren’t your fault, and you’re praised for things that aren’t your doing.
Q: How long did it take you to settle into the job?
A: It took about three years before I felt comfortable enough in the job to stop saying, “What would Guido Calabresi do? Or would Harold Koh do, or Tony Kronman,” who are my great predecessors, and appeal to my own instincts. You have to be around the block three or four times and see how things work out before you can trust your own instincts. This job is like nothing else I’ve ever done.
Q: You and outgoing Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow penned an op-ed in the Boston Globe raising concerns about Donald Trump’s apparent disregard for the rule of law and judicial independence. Does being dean of Yale Law School come with obligations that go beyond running the law school? Must you play a public role?
A: It’s a very careful role for me. On the one hand, I didn’t want to get involved in disputes where I had no place. Our alumni have many different opinions. I speak for a school, and the school embraces people with completely different opinions. I don’t want to get involved in needless controversies. I chose to get involved where I could speak for the school. The school has an interest in the rule of law, the legitimacy of police, in defending legal education. I tried to limit my public voice to where I could speak not for me, Robert Post, but for the school.
Q: Has Yale Law School been insulated from the so-called legal education crisis? Has it been impacted in any way?
A: The crisis in legal education typically refers to the fact that the number of applicants to law school is way down, and law schools have lost population. Fortunately, we are insulated from that. We are still the most selective school in the country. Our yield rate is unbelievably high. Of course, the role of lawyers, and what students want to do and the role of law in society, is one that continues to be controversial. We’re not insulated from that.
Q: There’s a new crop of law deans coming in this summer. What’s your best piece of advice for them?
A: The best advice I got as dean was from my colleague John Langbein who took me aside when I became dean and said, “A very good dean can marginally improve a school, but a bad dean can hurt it a lot very quickly, so be cautious.” That was advice I took to heart. It’s important to maintain the spirit and synergy of which law schools are made. Pay attention to that spirit, and keeping it fresh and vigorous.
Q: What are you plans for the future?
A: I’m on sabbatical next year, so I’ll be in New York. I’m completing Volume 10 of the “Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise History of the Supreme Court of the United States,” which will cover the period of 1921 to 1930, when Howard Taft was chief justice. I’ll be coming back to Yale as a professor.
Q: What kind of a dean will your successor, Heather Gerken, be?
A: She is going to be an outstanding dean. She is going to be visionary and energetic and extremely capable in her administrative capacities. She is an outstanding communicator and a great teacher. She’s going to bring those skills to bear in the deanship. She’s very much in touch with the students, so she’s going to be a very student-friendly dean. She’s highly respected by the faculty. I expect great things coming out of her.
Q: What will you miss most about the job?
A: The office. I have the most beautiful office in Yale University. It’s wood-paneled with wonderful carvings and great lead-paned windows. This little corner of Yale Law School is such a rich place to work, in terms of the environment and the beauty of it.
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