Heather Gerken re-appointed as Dean of Yale Law School
Heather Gerken, Yale Law School's first female dean, weathered multiple crises during her first term.
Heather Gerken has been appointed for a second term as dean of Yale Law School, University President Peter Salovey announced last week.
Gerken has served as Dean for the past five years and is set to begin her second term on July 1. She is the first female dean of the Law School, and in her first term she aimed to bring together “theory and practice,” launching a new leadership program, running a government law clinic and increasing the diversity of the Law School community. Gerken also faced criticism for her handling of several high-profile incidents throughout her tenure. An eight-person faculty committee reviewed Gerken’s accomplishments during her first term as Dean and recommended her for reappointment. Salovey made the announcement in a Jan. 19 email to the Law School community.
“I think that this is such a joyous job,” Gerken said in an interview with the News. “The magic of our intellectual environment is that it isn’t just something that takes place inside the classroom, but takes place in those exchanges between students and faculty on ideas, when the students meet each other out in the courtyard and when students interact directly with clients.”
Gerken graduated from Princeton University in 1991 and received a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1994. She clerked for Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the 9th Circuit, as well as Supreme Court Justice David Souter. Prior to assuming her deanship, Gerken was a professor who specialized in constitutional and election law. She began teaching at the Yale Law School in 2006.
Gerken said that she is especially proud of her initiatives to allow 70 percent of law students to receive scholarship support in 2020-21 and to create the five most diverse classes in the school’s history. Over half of the students in the Law School’s class of 2024 are female, and 54 percent of the students identify as students of color.
“Members of the YLS community remarked on Dean Gerken’s dedication to the mission of the School, her record of building new innovative programs, her advocacy for scholarly and clinical work, and the inspiring passion that she brings every day to her job,” Salovey wrote in his Jan. 19 message. “She has already accomplished an ambitious agenda in her first term, and I am confident that the Law School will continue to benefit tremendously from her vision, talent, and energy in the years ahead.”
Saja Spearman-Weaver LAW ’23 and Adam Gerard LAW ’23 shared with the News their respect for Gerken and their excitement for her second term.
Gerard added that Gerken has done an “excellent job” making herself available to students as both an academic and an administrator, highlighting that she took the time to meet with him individually, despite not being his professor.
During her first term, Gerken has led the school through several scandals that drew extensive media coverage to the Law School. In October, the Law School was thrust into the spotlight after administrators pressured a student to apologize after sending an email that some saw as racially charged. Some saw the administration’s handling of the incident as an infringement of free speech, and Gerken later apologized for the administration’s actions. In the following month, two students sued Gerken and other Law School administrators for allegedly pressuring them to lie last year in an investigation on law professor Amy Chua’s misconduct.
“The lawsuit is legally and factually baseless, and the University will offer a vigorous defense,” University spokesperson Karen Peart wrote in an email to the News.
“I think the one thing that we all agree on is that we love this institution,” Gerken said. “And you can’t be an academic and can’t be a lawyer without thinking that it’s important to engage with people with whom you disagree. So in a lot of ways, the core values of Yale Law School depend on differences and disagreements. The fact that we’re all knit together by a deep commitment to the school makes those interactions easier rather than harder.”
Gerken added that the Yale Law School community has a unique set of tools that enables them to “get more out of those disagreements” and to move forward.
“YLS faces a lot of challenges, but not because of a lack of steady hand on top,” law professor David Schleicher said. “The reality of the school is like working unbelievably well. … It’s a real pleasure to work in the Law School due to Heather.”
During her first term, Gerken was also forced to face the COVID-19 pandemic, including virtual instruction. Schleicher said that Gerken’s “can do” attitude and “industry and capacity” have been especially crucial to maintain the “heart” of the school during the pandemic.
Schleicher said that Gerken was a “steady captain in troubled waters” for both students and faculty through the Dean’s initiatives — such as her leadership program — and her navigation of the in-person and online classes.
“I was incredibly moved by the way that the faculty and staff and students took care of one another, even on the most exhausting day in the middle of the worst moment of the pandemic,” Gerken said. “That’s what gave me the energy, seeing the sort of love and affection that everyone has for each other and for this place.”
All of the professors and alumni that spoke with the News noted that they were “unsurprised” with Gerken’s reappointment and noted her drive to build on the Law School’s legacy and provide more opportunities for students and faculty to thrive.
“Heather determined that while it was the case that Yale Law students have gone on to become great leaders and have acted admirably, there was still a need for the Law School to absorb the best teaching and learnings about leadership in particular and impart that to the next generation of law students,” said Rakim Brooks LAW ’16 SOM ’16, president of Alliance for Justice, an organization that provides nonprofits with the tools they need to be advocates. “I think that the folks who are attending the Law School now will have been spectacular in any case, but they’ll be ever more prepared for the positions that they almost necessarily will take up in the world.”
Brooks stressed the weight of Gerken’s accomplishments of leading the school, despite carrying the “burdens as the first woman to occupy that particular seat.”
Gerken said that she is “always thinking” about the generations of women who came before her and the challenges they encountered during their professions, adding that she is “so grateful” to have the chance to lead the Law School for another term.
Law Professor Scott Shapiro said that Gerken’s “theory and practice” goal in leadership supports his research as an academic without “static,” while simultaneously allowing him to make a community-based impact by running a clinic for documentary filmmakers.
“I just think that more than anything, she just lets me do my job,” Shapiro said.
Gerken has been dean of the Law School since July 1, 2017.
Update, Jan. 26: This story has been updated to include University spokesperson Karen Peart’s comment on a lawsuit filed against Gerken.