Although Yale Law School Acting Dean Kate Stith now sits in outgoing Dean Harold Hongju Koh’s corner office, his presence still lingers in the form of a Koh bobblehead doll nodding sagely on Stith’s table. One can imagine Koh, a Boston Red Sox fan, taking issue with the doll’s neighbor, a statuette of former New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi.
Still, as Koh — who was recently nominated for a State Department job — prepares for his confirmation hearings, it is Stith alone who must now take the reins of the Law School.
In interviews, 11 faculty and students said that Stith’s extensive administrative experience and reputation for fair-mindedness in the classroom will serve her well as the leader, even if only temporarily, of one of the nation’s preeminent legal institutions. And although members of the school’s community said they would welcome Stith’s permanent appointment to the position, Stith — the first female to serve in the Law School’s highest administrative post — said she would rather return to the classroom.
“I have no desire to be [permanent] dean of Yale Law School,” Stith said in an interview Monday. “I plan to return to teaching full-time once I finish the acting deanship.”
Stith is no stranger to the management of the school. A deputy dean from 1999 to 2001 and again in 2003 to 2004 under former Dean Anthony Kronman LAW ’75, Stith said she is familiar with the administrative scope of the deanship but has been caught off guard by the workload that comes with the position.
“I wasn’t surprised by the variety and importance of the matters that end up on the dean’s desk,” Stith said. “But I admit that I’m surprised by the volume.”
As a result, Stith said, she now has little time to sleep; when asked about her beaming profile picture on the school’s Web site, she joked: “That’s how I looked two weeks ago.”
In particular, Stith said she is enjoying the executive aspect of her new position. Especially when important or difficult decisions arise in context of the deanship, Stith said there is a “real sense of challenge and accomplishment” once a decision is made, a situation less frequent in the day-to-day life of a professor.
Nonetheless, Stith — who has taught classes on criminal law and procedure — said she relishes every opportunity to interact with students. As the moderator at a debate on the Fourth Amendment last week, Stith said she inadvertently ended up as a participant, arguing both sides.
Stith, who joined the Yale faculty in 1985, the same year as Koh, has spent her entire academic career at the Law School. Prior to her appointment, she prosecuted white-collar and organized crime as an assistant federal attorney in New York.
Stith was also a trustee of Dartmouth College from 1989 to 2000 and is currently chairwoman of the Law School’s budget committee. Law professor Douglas Kysar said these experiences, coupled with an amount of common sense “rare for an academic,” should also prove useful in light of the current economic crisis.
“She combines the best of the ivory tower with a healthy amount of real-world efficiency,” Kysar said.
And it does not get any more “real” than this: For the foreseeable future, Stith will to steer the school through the toughest economic climate in recent memory.
Stith said she expects the Law School to remain at the “cutting edge” of legal scholarship despite University-wide budget woes, adding that money is only one consideration when the school decides to undertake new projects. Stith pointed out that the school’s endowment, which stood at $1.2 billion in June 2008 and is separate from the University’s funds, is actually slightly above its 2006 value of approximately $800 million.
She added that she expects the school to continue its drive toward gender equality. Days after Stith’s appointment on March 23, the Law School announced the addition of Oona Hathaway LAW ’97 and Claire Priest ’94 LAW ’00 GRD ’03 to the school’s faculty. And, as evidenced by the October 2008 appointment of Sharon Oster as dean of the School of Management and many others, Stith said, University President Richard Levin has demonstrated that gender is no impediment to assuming any particular responsibility at the University.
Stith herself has promoted women’s issues. She is on the board of directors of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale, which trains women who hope to enter the political arena.
Several of Stith’s students said they expected that her fairness in the classroom and eagerness to interact with students would transfer over to the deanship, adding that her ability to hear both sides of a question should help her lead a faculty dominated by strong personalities.
“She’ll be a good referee in promoting healthy dialogue within the law school,” said Brian Barnes LAW ’10, who has taken Stith’s criminal procedure class.
Law professor Scott Shapiro LAW ’90, a former student of Stith’s, recalled a congratulatory note she wrote to him about an article he published. Not only was the gesture “completely gratuitous,” Shapiro said, but she also wrote it out longhand, as the incident occurred before the widespread use of e-mail.
At the same time, Stith is not as well-known in the Law School community as many other professors. In an informal poll of 19 law students Tuesday, 16 said they had not interacted on a personal level with Stith.
“I don’t think that people dislike her,” said one first-year law student. “It’s just that people have yet to know her well.”
Despite Stith’s avowals that she intends to serve as dean only temporarily, law professor Steven Duke LAW ’61 said if she ever wanted the job, she would be a competitive candidate.
“She’s certainly a reasonable prospect for the position, if she’s interested,” Duke said.