At Law School, Koh is liberal lion

This is the first part of a two-part profile.

Fate brought Harold Hongju Koh to the Yale Law School deanship. He was six years old at the time.

Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh is balancing the dual roles of academic administrator and political advocate.
Amy Ly
Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh is balancing the dual roles of academic administrator and political advocate.

The year was 1961, and Eugene V. Rostow — outspoken, energetic and controversial — was dean. During his tenure, Rostow doubled the Yale Law School faculty, transformed the curriculum and rocketed the school to first in the nation.

And he left Yale with one more legacy: Koh.

After South Korea’s April Revolution, Koh’s family decided to stay in America, where they had been living and thriving since the late 1940s. So the couple, along with their six children, went where most immigrants seeking jobs and asylum go: to the dean of Yale Law School. Rostow, evidently impressed, invited Hesung Chun Koh and Kwang Lim Koh to teach a joint course on East Asian law and society for three years.

In effect, Rostow had planted the seeds for today’s Yale Law School dean. Koh would grow up in the Elm City, and he would idolize his law school benefactor.

“The dean of Yale Law School was, in my eyes, someone who could change somebody’s life,” Koh says. “He certainly changed mine.”

It may seem like an overstatement, but in a sort of fate meets taxes and torts way, it is not. Much of what Koh says contains a similar mixture of grandeur and truth. And he intends it that way, whether he is speaking about Yale Law School or about the entire world.

This past month alone, Koh — soon to begin his third year as dean — drew both applause and heat for his strong stance against defamatory postings on an Internet forum, and in virtually the same breath, told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in Washington D.C. that President George W. Bush ’68 had lowered America’s stature in the world.

Whatever he does, Koh stands out, and he has for many years. Guido Calabresi, a former Law School dean and current Second Circuit Court of Appeals judge who knew Koh when he was growing up, remembers that Koh’s friends purchased a small wagon for him on the night of his middle school awards ceremony to carry home his memorabilia, “and, of course, Harold ended up winning so many prizes.”

That wagon is filling up — more rapidly, perhaps, than ever. Alongside middle school prizes, Koh has accumulated many other accolades: three years as Assistant Secretary of State of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor under President Clinton, a successful 1993 fight to the Supreme Court to free hundreds of Haitian refugees held in Guantanamo — the subject of a planned movie — and even a new “Harold Hongju Koh Bobblehead Doll” being sold by the Yale chapter of the American Constitution Society.

But lately, some students and faculty have said that Koh walks a line on which a man of his stature cannot balance without falling to one side: the line between dean and advocate. There is discussion among some conservative groups in the law school that Koh has had somewhat of a chilling effect on conservative thought on campus — or that he has actively made some effort to quiet it.

“My one misgiving about him is that he tends to wear his convictions on his sleeve,” said Peter Schuck, a longtime Yale Law School professor. “The Law School would be a stronger institution if there were more ideological diversity.”

Either way, earlier this year Koh began, in his words, to hit his “stride.” Around the baseball diamond, perhaps, as the Red Sox fan’s priorities are threefold: globalizing his institution, bridging the gap between public service and theory, and hiring younger faculty. Interviews with about 40 past and present law students indicate that Koh is beloved by many, appreciated by nearly all and disliked mainly by political conservatives — and even then, mostly for his policy pronouncements.

For a group of hypercritical lawyers to join in virtual consensus is telling.

Meanwhile, major newspapers, including the New York Times, reported that Koh was on or close to the top of the list of likely Supreme Court nominees had John Kerry been elected in 2004. Conversations with Koh confidants, law faculty and Supreme Court watchers almost all lend credence to the rumor.

“I am hedged for 2008,” says Kenji Yoshino, a civil rights activist and Yale Law School professor. “Either the Democrats will lose and Yale will keep Harold, or the Democrats will win and Yale will loan him to the country.”

Only time — and the electorate’s mood, the new president’s disposition, the country’s political climate and the current justices’ health — will tell. But in the meantime, that “little wagon” may soon become a carriage complete with entourage if Koh doesn’t — or rather, does — watch out.

Fate brought Harold Koh to the Yale Law School deanship. The question now is whether it can bring him further.

The Dream: Opening Arguments

Koh was awake with the rest of America on the night of Tuesday, November 7, 2000 — the start of the infamous month-long Election Day — watching as networks reported, “Gore wins Florida!” He was alone in his Washington, D.C., apartment and exhausted, having just returned from a mission to North Korea. He was torn, as well.

“A number of people had asked me, ‘If Gore is elected, will you stay in Washington?’ I thought, ‘Wow, I wonder what I should do,’” Koh says. “I was thinking about it, and then I fell asleep and had a dream.”

Koh’s dream centered around a fittingly legal scene: a Lincoln-Douglas-esque debate, featuring argument back and forth on the question of whether Koh should return to New Haven or stay in the capital to seek a high-level position in the Gore Administration.

When Koh awoke his future was, in effect, still a question for the courts. It appeared that Gore had won Florida, but the margin was contestably close. Once the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bush, Koh was headed up I-95 to Yale and into the environment shaped by Anthony Kronman, who was in the middle of his second term as dean.

Eight years later, Koh is dean, and he knows every student’s first name — even before they enroll — and asks some second- and third-year students the times of their clerkship interviews so that he can “be with them in spirit.” Longtime professors say Koh has emulated Calabresi above all by working to loosen the atmosphere within the building and stating his desire to build a community. At a recent end-of-the-year banquet, he joined a student look-alike, who was imitating the dean before the entire student body and faculty, and began to play along. He has made calls for students to watch sporting events together in the building. On one occasion, Koh offered Seun Adebiyi LAW ’09 a ride home.

“He seems like a really approachable kind of person: very involved with student life and affairs,” Adeyebi says. “He seems to really take a personal interest in me.”

Koh bought his administrative staff iPods for Christmas, according to Marianne Dietz, his assistant. And law professor Lea Brilmayer cannot think of the dean “without thinking of him smiling.” She recalls with particular fondness his bringing a representative from the World Series champion Red Sox team to campus to deliver a pep talk in the school’s courtyard.

“I thought that was very cute,” she says.

But cuteness is hardly the key to leading the Yale Law School. And it is certainly not the key to convincing your staff that you are a “legendary, almost Homeric figure,” as Yoshino describes Koh, or to becoming the sole choice for Yale Law School dean. The search committee that convened in 2004, in fact, took the unusual step of sending only one name to Yale President Richard Levin.

“It would be wrong to say that Harold beat out a field of competitors,” Kronman says. “Harold was the field.”

For many years, several professors say, Koh had been the most likely successor to Kronman. And in the 1980s, when Koh’s name came up for tenure, Kronman says, he had “never seen an easier case than Harold Koh.”

Today, a row of Supreme Court Justice bobblehead dolls lines Koh’s cabinet. The father of two is as likely to cite the wisdom of a pop icon as he is to point to a wise quote engraved on the wall of his spacious office at the request of a former dean. With equal fervor, Koh can explain why the Bush Administration has “blatantly” violated the Constitution and why the Boston Red Sox first baseman, who tried to sell the final World Series game ball, was violating an intricate civil procedure doctrine. And all the while, he’s flashing that toothy smile.

Are his students and colleagues smiling back?

The Dream: Ruling Day

Plenty smile, but there are a few who — deep inside — might be cringing.

Robert Post said he sees Koh as a leader “more forceful than most” with a dynamic and “strong” vision. It is a trait that can work both ways.

When Koh is interviewed, he has requested that the reporter break from traditional style and reference him with his Korean middle name, Hongju.

Asked to list his most closely-held legal positions, he lists gay rights at the top. Then, correcting himself, he adds, “lesbian and transgender” rights to the mix. And despite a 8-0 smack down by the Supreme Court in the military recruiting case Rumsfeld v. FAIR, Koh still refused to grant ROTC equal access to the Law School, even in the face of the increasing erosion of the coalition in favor of protesting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by this means.

When Koh debated the Taliban’s American ambassador in 2001, Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, he refused to shake Hashemi’s hand. When several years later, Hashemi became a Yale student, Koh went on the record condemning Hashemi even while other Yale administrators remained silent.

In other words, part two of Koh’s dream on Election Day 2000 — the banter following open arguments — represents the second, and perhaps most exciting, facet of Yale Law School’s current dean. He may be ‘cute,’ endearingly funny, and a tremendous ball of ‘high energy,’ as professor Denny Curtis describes him, but the core of Koh’s deanship has not been his personality or even his desired legacy. It has been his ideological convictions and the debate they have sparked.

As dean, Koh has hardly relented. Yoshino says that early in his deanship, he “worried that [Koh’s] inability to ‘go along to get along’ on civil rights issues would hurt him.”

“In fact, the opposite is the case,” Yoshino says. “Even those who disagree with him respect that he stands for something that is larger than his office or his career.”

But some political conservatives contest Yoshino’s broad generalization, arguing that Koh has a tendency to embarrass Yale.

In an incident last year, Koh’s position on civil rights came into direct conflict with academic freedom. Kiwi Camara, one of the youngest students to graduate from Harvard Law School, was to talk about his theory of corporate law as part of a panel discussion organized by Yale Law Journal editors. But the issue concerned much more than legal doctrine: As a student at Harvard, Camara inspired controversy when class notes using the phrase “Nigs buy land with no nig covenant” to describe a Supreme Court case became public. Though Camara apologized, he refused to rule out slipping and using “nigger” again in the future. At the March 2006 panel discussion, Koh — accompanied by a group of students and law school administrators — stood up and walked out as Camara was introduced.

“While I, of course, understand that [Koh] doesn’t want to show in any way that he supports racism, I thought that the value of academic freedom was more important to be defined in this instance,” said one student, who asked to remain anonymous because Koh is one of his professors. “I worry Koh’s behavior can actually have a chilling effect on people who might wish to say things that are considered outside the mainstream.”

David Bernstein LAW ’91 said that when he attended Yale, it was considered a friendlier place than Harvard for conservatives and libertarians. Leading conservative thinkers in law and economics were appointed to the faculty under Calabresi, and the Federalist Society was founded. The former dean says he went out of his way to tell non-liberal students that he valued their perspectives.

But today, Harvard Law School is at the forefront in this area: Conservative thinkers Jack Goldsmith and John Manning were recently appointed to the faculty by the Harvard Law School dean, Elena Kagan, who declined to comment for this story.

“Promoting diversity of all kinds is a very high priority for me,” Koh said, but he declined to comment as to whether ideology is a factor in his own decision-making about faculty members.

Two alumni, who asked to remain anonymous, said they will no longer make donations to the Yale Law School because of Koh’s liberal record.

But Koh brushed off such complaints, saying “You can’t make everybody happy.”

Criticism of Koh in the legal blogosphere has picked up since the start of the 2006-’07 school year. While he always has had supporters in cyberspace, Koh’s dissenters are particularly harsh: First, they attacked him for making the decision to again bar the ROTC. Then bloggers, along with several students, criticized Koh for giving an allegedly cold welcome to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in November.

“Dean Koh has a long and ignominious record of suppressing conservative speech,” wrote one blogger named Doug. “It’s sad that they let him go this long.”

So is Koh really walking the line, or is he falling to one side?

A third-year law student, who asked to remain anonymous, says there are “a lot of students, including me, who think it’s not the place of the Law School to take positions on controversial law issues of the day.”

Kronman kept relatively quiet on his political beliefs until he was nearing the end of his term as dean. For example, in April 2004, three months before he left the deanship, he gave a speech heartily praising Hillary Clinton LAW ’73. At the time, he said it would be “really wonderful” if Clinton could return to the White House as President herself.

Perhaps the dean-advocate line is a blurry one.

But for the vast majority of his students and faculty at the left-leaning institution, Koh could be on both sides of the divide and no one would criticize his conduct. Even Stephen Vaden LAW ’08 — the president of the Yale Law Republicans who predicts the school will soon fall to second in the rankings behind Harvard because, he says, there is a brick wall for leading conservative thinkers — has a difficult time putting Koh, whom he adores as a teacher, into any category of “bad” or “good,” “closed-” or “open-minded.”

“Dean Koh is a multifaceted figure,” Vaden says. “He’s extraordinarily strong-willed, and it’s kind of hard to put him in a box. Once he gets something in his head, it’s going to stay there, and he’s going to go all out.”

Whether Koh’s ideological intensity will help or hinder him if he one day returns to Washington, D.C. — as those close to him say he might one day — remains to be seen.

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