President Barack Obama tapped Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh for the top legal post at the State Department on Monday.

If he is confirmed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Koh will resign his deanship and take a public service leave from the Law School. As legal adviser to the State Department, Koh would serve as principal counselor on all legal matters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton LAW ’73. Law School professor Kate Stith will serve as acting dean, effective immediately, until a successor is appointed, University President Richard Levin announced in a statement Monday.

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“From my first day as Dean, I have spoken of Yale Law School’s abiding commitments to public service, globalization and the profession,” Koh wrote in an e-mail message to the Law School community on Monday. “President Obama and Secretary Clinton have now offered me an opportunity to live those commitments myself, by joining their effort to help our country live up to its own best standards and principles.”

Monday’s announcement ended months of speculation about whether Koh might leave Yale for a job in Washington, D.C. Previously, Koh had emphatically dismissed such talk as unsubstantiated gossip.

The News first reported on Feb. 5 that Koh was a leading contender for the position. At that time, Koh declined to comment when asked if he would say, unequivocally, that he would not leave the Law School this year for a government appointment.

Upon his return, Koh said he plans to serve as a professor on the Law School faculty. If Koh is not confirmed, he will return as dean of the Law School. Although Koh’s five-year term as dean is set to end in June, Levin told the News in February that Koh would receive a reappointment if he stayed.

Students and professors buzzed with talk of the news at a Monday evening reception for former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, who gave a lecture on global justice earlier in the day. Few were surprised by Koh’s appointment. Sohail Ramirez LAW ’10 said he thought Koh’s loss will be felt most by the students he taught. Given his position as dean, Ramirez said, Koh’s work as a teacher is often overlooked.

“He has a very pragmatic take on law,” Ramirez said, “and [he] teaches you to use it to effect change, especially in the international sphere.”

Levin said Stith’s appointment as acting dean will “permit Dean Koh to focus on preparation for his important new responsibility.”

Stith, who came to Yale in 1985, specializes in the areas of criminal law, criminal procedure and constitutional law. She also served as deputy dean of the law school from 1999 to 2001 and again in 2003 to 2004 under former Dean Anthony Kronman LAW ’75.

A permanent successor for Koh, who has been criticized in the past for airing his liberal political views, has yet to be announced, but the names of professors Heather Gerken, William Eskridge, Robert Post and Stith were brought up in speculation by students Monday.

Like many Obama appointees, Koh is a veteran of the administration of President Bill Clinton LAW ’73, having served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. That appointment placed him under Secretary of State Madeleine Albright from 1998 to 2001. In that job, Koh also served as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

Koh’s deanship is among the most coveted positions in the academia, but the position of legal adviser holds great sway in the field of international law, Koh’s area of expertise.

“It’s certainly the most prestigious international law office in the federal government, if not the most prestigious general counsel office in the government overall,” John Bellinger III, who served as legal adviser during the Bush administration, said in an interview Feb. 4. “It is the central place to do international law.”

In the early 1990s, Koh successfully led a group of Law School students in a protracted battle to free Haitian refugees from the U.S. Naval base at Guantánamo Bay. From 1993 to 1998, Koh served as director of the Law School’s Center for International Human Rights. In addition to serving as dean, Koh is the Gerard C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith professor of international law.

Nora Caplan-Bricker contributed reporting.