Courtesy of Yale Alumni Magazine
When Robert Post LAW ’77 assumed the deanship of Yale Law School in 2009, he inherited an institution in flux. Enrollments at other U.S. law schools were plunging, the Sterling Law Building could hardly accommodate the entire school and financial markets were reeling from a global recession that contributed to a significant depreciation in the value of Yale’s endowment.
Facing a reduced budget, Post turned his attention outward. He secured over $200 million in gifts, enough money to introduce new scholarly centers and innovative methods of learning. The Law School replenished faculty ranks and prepared for physical expansion: in the past eight years, 17 new professors joined the faculty, and the school acquired a new building, Swing Space, which will house Law School students beginning August 2018.
Now nearing the end of his second term, Post — who confirmed in October that he will be stepping down at the end of his term in June — leaves behind a stable school that boasts a younger, more diverse faculty; a first-of-its-kind Ph.D. in law program; and an expanded physical space.
His impact has not gone unnoticed, as students and faculty interviewed described Post as a forward thinker and a deeply caring dean who was responsive to concerns.
“To me the most important dimension of deaning is to make those associated with the school take ownership of the school,” Post said. “Creating the institutional structures to make that happen, creating the trust, creating the desire, are the essence to me of the job. I believe the school is now fully engaged, which is my proudest legacy.”
WEATHERING THE EARLY STORM
Post joined the Yale Law School faculty in 2003 after 20 years of teaching at the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. When his predecessor Harold Koh was nominated in 2009 to be a legal advisor in the Obama administration, Post took over the deanship.
“I will forever be grateful to Robert for assuming the deanship after I left for the government and for leading us through difficult financial times,” Koh said. “He deserves a wonderful and restful sabbatical.”
When Post assumed the deanship, Yale’s endowments — including that of the Law School — had fallen by nearly 25 percent from the previous fiscal year. As a result, then-University President Richard Levin GRD ’74 and the Yale Corporation put a hold on projects in their planning stages, many of which involved the Law School.
It took a while for Post, a green hand in human resources and fundraising, to get accustomed to the new job.
“I had a steep learning curve — I think most in this job do — but it did not occur in discrete moments of insight,” Post recalled. “After a while, I began to inhabit the job and instead of trying to act as my predecessors would have, tried to act as myself.”
As dean, Post placed special emphasis on maintaining the Law School’s tradition of academic excellence, bolstering both the faculty and the student body.
“He oversaw the hiring of a new generation of legal scholars and raised the sums necessary to refinish a building we desperately need,” incoming Law School Dean Heather Gerken said. “Put differently, he’s invested in both our human capital and physical infrastructure.”
In an email to the News, Post identified the uneven demographic distribution of the Law School faculty as a major challenge of his tenure, acknowledging that the faculty was “highly skewed toward eminent but older” scholars.
During his tenure, the school hired 17 new faculty members whose areas of expertise range from tax law and family law to criminal law and legal history.
David Schleicher, an associate law professor who graduated from Harvard Law School in 2004 and joined the faculty in 2015, said Post has built a vibrant community with “crackling intellectual energy” with his appointments, adding that the younger cohort of professors are dynamic and exciting. Amanda Shanor ’03 LAW ’09 GRD ’20, a doctoral candidate in law who has worked for Post in both research and professional capacities, said Post recruited a cohort of “superstar rising young scholars” whose interdisciplinary cutting-edge work will enrich the school. Shanor added that she is aware of other offers being made and is confident that some of them will be consolidated.
Post also addressed the issue of faculty diversity during his deanship. In spring 2015, Post convened the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion to research and recommend initiatives to make the Law School more inclusive. The committee, co-chaired by three law professors, made over 60 recommendations in March 2016 that the Law School administration has been implementing ever since. “Those changes have had a real impact. This year’s first-year class is the most diverse in Yale’s history, for instance,” said Gerken, one of the co-chairs of the committee.
And with a $25 million donation from Robert Baker ’56 LAW ’59 and his wife, Christina, Post spearheaded an initiative to bring residential housing back to the Law School.
Mike Thompson, associate dean of the Law School in charge of building services, said Baker Hall, known as Swing Space, would provide spaces for new classrooms, student activities, lounge and dormitories for over 120 law students just one block away from the current base. When renovation completes in August 2018, the Law School will offer residential housing for the first time since dormitories in the Sterling Law Building were converted to academic and administrative spaces by 2009.
“Our alumni remember their dormitory experience at the Law School and our current students are looking forward to [it],” Thompson said.
ADVANCING INTELLECTUAL INTERESTS
Post’s tenure came during a time of crisis in the legal education, with reports showing that first-year enrollments at law schools across U.S. in 2013 plunged to historically low levels.
In response to the crisis, Post said, both the American Bar Association and the government were pushing law schools to be more practice-oriented, but the Law School was thought by many to be theoretical and academic.
“I had to work to maintain the morale of the school,” he said.
At a time when donations and grants to higher education institutions were falling, Post took a new approach. What he called “aggressive fundraising” paid off, enabling the creation of various academic centers, including the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy, the Gruber Program for Global Justice and Women’s Rights, and the Abdallah S. Kamel Center for the Study of Islamic Law and Civilization.
Joe Crosby, associate dean in charge of finance and administration at the Law School, said that although he was not at Yale during the recession, he knew that the decline in endowments had a significant, negative impact on the Law School’s financial health at that time.
“It was under Dean Post’s leadership that the school weathered the decline and returned to solid financial footing without having to sacrifice activities and program integral to the teaching and research mission of the school,” Crosby said.
Law professor Owen Fiss said faculty appointments and the establishment of intellectual centers are Post’s major contributions.
As the legal teaching market tightened in U.S., Post also spearheaded the nation’s first Ph.D. program in law, whose inaugural class graduated last year.
When law professor Michael Wishnie ’87 LAW ’93, who spent much of his career supervising students suing corporations, was named the deputy dean of experiential learning by Post, he was surprised to find that one of his first initiatives was to strengthen experiential offerings for corporate-minded students.
“Dean Post and I recognized that our clinical offerings were primarily in litigation, even as many of our students sought a career in transactional or corporate work,” Wishnie said.
Recognizing that live-client clinics in which students work on multi-billion dollar mergers and acquisitions are infeasible, the Law School invited law practitioners based in New York and Washington — many of whom are Law School alumni — to teach business simulation courses, with topics ranging from IPOs to corporate crisis management.
Wishnie added that both of Law School’s core strengths — the highly theoretical course offerings and the nation’s most robust live-client clinical program — have been preserved under Post’s deanship.
Shanor, a third-year doctorate in law candidate, said the program prepared the candidates not only to be law professors, but to reflect critically on law as a field. She added that the creation of the program represented Post’s desire and commitment to reconceive American legal education to cultivate scholars best equipped to animate law and American legal scholarship.
“His deanship, like his scholarship, has contributed profoundly to what makes the law school the best in the country — and why it draws such a diverse group of rising young lawyers, scholars and advocates, who will leave its walls to make the world and the legal profession what it will be in times to come” Shanor said. “And that’s a world that needs them now more than ever.”
Post also ensured that the Law School would remain accessible to all students, as scholarships funded by endowed gifts also soared during his tenure. Gifts replaced operating funds to cover nearly 75 percent of the Career Options Assistance Program, a loan forgiveness program that encourages students to pursue careers in public interest, among others. According to Crosby, COAP disbursed $5.2 million in benefits to graduates in 2016 alone, an expensive expenditure that Post’s fundraising has ensured for continuance.
And financial aid is not the only area to benefit from Post’s fundraising efforts. Programs such as the Information Society Project — a Law School center that explores the intersection of law, technology and society — have grown.
Shanor said she had hardly heard of the Information Society Project while she worked toward her J.D. at the Law School in the late 2000s. Now a resident scholar of the project, Shanor said it has now grown into a rich intellectual community.
THE HUMAN TOUCH
While Post has made many notable contributions as the dean, students and faculty best remember him as a caring soul.
Law professor James Forman LAW ’92 said Post has done a good job bringing the community together, giving not only the faculty and students, but the staff at Law School the recognition they deserve.
Schleicher said Post is “the warmest a person can possibly be.” He recalled the time when he ran into Post on an Amtrak train from New Haven to Washington and Post gave Schleicher, who was then a visiting professor at Yale, a long critique of his work that was both “off the cuff and utterly brilliant.”
Chris Haugh LAW ’18, who took a First Amendment course with Post in his first year, said Post is “never far from” the students, always asking them “how are you,” “what are you up to,” “how can I help” and “what makes you passionate.”
“It was most rewarding for me to listen and to learn and to be able to find institutional expression for the best aspects of this school,” Post said.
University President Peter Salovey praised Post as an “enormously effective” dean and a terrific colleague, adding that he would seek counsel with Post on issues such as free expression and academic freedom.
“He helped me understand the best ways to promote speech in an academic environment, but also how to manage situations that can cause conflict among people who disagree,” Salovey said.
During his deanship, Post published two books and many scholarly articles and was quoted frequently in the press as an expert on the First Amendment. Post said his scholarship and teaching are precious for him, adding that he has promised his editors to “at long last” produce a draft of a volume of a book on the history of U.S. Supreme Court.
“During his deanship, more so than other deans in recent history, he has managed to keep up his scholarship,” said Fiss, who taught Post when he was a law student at Yale.
Gerken’s deanship officially begins on July 1, after which Post will return to teaching. With improvements to the physical space, academic centers and faculty diversity, he leaves behind a stronger law school.