In the year since Yale tapped Harold Hongju Koh to steer the Law School, he had been pegged as a potential Supreme Court appointee by Democratic Sen. John Kerry ’66. But the fervor has died down since Kerry lost the election, and Koh, who said he loves his current post, has no desire to leave the University.
Since being named dean a year ago this month, Koh, who has taught international law at the Law School since 1985, has earned the respect and admiration of many of his colleagues with his enthusiasm and detailed priorities, fellow law professors said.
Law professor Anthony Kronman, Koh’s immediate predecessor as dean, said a conversation he had with a colleague about Kerry’s loss in the presidential election distills the impact Koh has made in his first year at the post.
“I was talking to one of my colleagues the other day, and he said, ‘Well, you know, I’ve been looking for a silver lining, and I think I found one. You know, Harold has been mentioned for various positions in the Kerry administration. This means that — thank goodness — the Law School will have him for a longer time,'” Kronman said.
In a telephone interview Friday while he was traveling on business to Washington, D.C., Koh laid out his five main priorities for the Law School during his term as dean. Koh said he hopes to focus on globalization, hiring young faculty members, improving the relationship between the Yale Law School and the broader legal profession, promoting public service and working to build a stronger feeling of community between faculty members and students at the Law School.
“The Yale Law School is the outstanding law school of the 20th century,” Koh said. “There is the old saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ We do not need to change something that is working so well. But the environment is such that if we do not continuously fix it, we will go out of date.”
With his background as an international legal scholar and human-rights activist, Koh said his top priorities focus on initiatives he has worked on his entire life.
“Harold has moved into the deanship with such grace and natural ability that even a couple of months into the Koh deanship, it is hard to imagine that he hasn’t been the dean for a very long time,” Kronman said.
During the administration of former President Bill Clinton LAW ’73, Koh served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Associate Law School Dean Mark LaFontaine said Koh’s work on human rights throughout his career has made him a successful dean, one who has quickly garnered the support of alumni.
“He is just the perfect person for this time at the law school,” LaFontaine said.
Yale President Richard Levin said Koh has led faculty and inspired students from the very start of his deanship with his opening speech.
“He’s doing all the things a great dean should do,” Levin said.
But Koh faces new challenges as dean, both in terms of the infrastructure of the Law School and its developing role in the political sphere. One of the biggest infrastructure problems currently facing the Law School is a lack of building space.
“We are the only law school in America that is on the same footprint as we were on in 1930,” Koh said.
A building committee is developing an infrastructure plan for the future, and Koh said the goal is to expand into a building nearby the school’s current location on Wall Street.
Law professor Steven Duke said Koh is gifted in his attention to detail.
“He has an amazing memory of people and events and facts,” Duke said. “He is just very much on top of what is going on in the Law School, and that is really extraordinary.”
Just before he was named dean, Koh, along with 43 other Law School professors, filed suit against the U.S. Department of Defense for alleged discrimination in the government’s recruitment policies on campus because the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on sexual orientation violates Yale’s policy of nondiscrimination.
“We are against discrimination, pure and simple,” Koh said. “We need to stand up for all of our students.”
Although the deanship can be an exhausting position, Kronman said, Koh appears to be thriving.
“Harold has enormous enthusiasm and boundless energy,” Kronman said. “Instead of being fatigued by the job, he is actually charged up for it.”