For the first time in its history, Yale Law School will have a woman at the helm: Law professor Heather Gerken will succeed Robert Post LAW ’77 as the school’s 17th dean.
University President Peter Salovey announced the appointment, effective July 1, in a campuswide email Tuesday afternoon. The announcement marked an end to a search process that had been underway since Post announced in fall 2016 that he would step down at the end of this academic year, after serving as dean for eight years.
“I’m thrilled and humbled,” Gerken said. “[Yale Law School] is an incredible institution. I feel incredibly lucky to have a chance to be at the helm.”
Gerken, a specialist in election law and constitutional law, came to Yale in 2006 after teaching at Harvard for six years. Prior to entering academia, Gerken worked as a practicing lawyer. She graduated summa cum laude from Princeton with a bachelor’s degree in history before attending law school at the University of Michigan, where she was editor in chief of the Michigan Law Review.
Gerken was a senior legal advisor for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 and 2012, and has worked as a commentator for numerous media outlets including The New York Times, CNN, The New Yorker and The Boston Globe.
At Yale, Gerken served as a co-chair of the Law School’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, which released an extensive report in March 2016 containing over 60 recommendations for promoting student and faculty diversity. The report addressed topics such as mentoring, classroom climate and enhanced support for student and alumni groups.
In an interview, Gerken said issues of diversity and inclusion will be one of the priorities of her deanship. In particular, she said, it is important to make all students welcome, especially those who will be the first in their family to attend law school and those who did not attend elite colleges.
“[Yale Law School] is such a gift and it’s so different from any other place,” Gerken said. “I just want to make sure that everybody is taking advantage of that. That’s my top priority.”
In his email, Salovey called Gerken an “acclaimed educator” who brings a “diverse practice experience” to the deanship. Even after she assumes the role, Gerken will continue to lead her law clinic, the San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project, which helped file the first legal challenge against President Donald Trump’s executive order targeting sanctuary cities last month.
“Yale Law School is very lucky to be able to draw on the energy, brilliance and leadership of Heather Gerken,” Post said in a statement. “This is a time of change in the nation and in legal education, and Heather is perfectly situated to take the helm of this extraordinary place. She has the entire confidence of the school.”
Paul Kahn GRD ’77 LAW ’80, who headed the search committee that recommended Gerken for the position, said she would be a strong voice for the school and for the entire law community.
“The committee’s priorities were to find someone who loved the school, understood and embraced its academic and professional values, and would be a leader for the entire community — faculty, staff, students and alumni,” Kahn said. “Professor Gerken will be a great dean.”
Faculty, students and alumni interviewed praised Gerken for her attentiveness in and outside of the classroom and expected her to show great leadership during what is a difficult time for the legal profession. James Forman LAW ’92, another law professor who co-chaired the 2016 diversity committee with Gerken, said he is thrilled by her appointment.
“I got to see up close and personal her unyielding commitment to creating a more diverse student body and faculty,” Forman said, referring to his experience co-leading the committee with Gerken.
Mike Shapiro LAW ’16, a former economic policy advisor for Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 and a former student of Gerken, said her academic expertise is a perfect fit for the current political climate. Shapiro said Gerken’s scholarship on the role of local and state governments in pushing back against the federal government is especially relevant now that Trump is in office.
“Now is an extraordinarily important time for leadership in major law schools,” Shapiro said. “Heather is extremely well-positioned to lead the Law School in this important time.”
Gerken served as a motivation and inspiration for Shapiro and his classmates during his time at the Law School, he said.
Victoria Stilwell LAW ’19, who had Gerken as a professor in her first year at the Law School, praised her as extremely supportive of all of her students, adding that Gerken created a great environment of dialogue in the classroom. Gerken made an effort to ensure that no one would dominate class discussions and everyone got a chance to speak up, Stilwell said.
Jeremy Lent LAW ’19, who has taken a class with Gerken, said he could not ask for a more engaging teacher, calling the appointment “a nice consolation prize for the election.”
“We didn’t get the first female president, but we’ve got the first female dean,” Lent said.
This article was updated to reflect the version that ran in print on Feb. 22. Rachel Treisman contributed reporting.