Tim Tai, Senior Photographer

The Yale Law School announced a new program this week, aiming to encourage discussion across the ideological lines.

Crossing Divides, which Law School Dean Heather Gerken announced Oct. 4, seeks to equip law students with the skills to collaborate with individuals from different backgrounds, according to the Law School website. The program is also set to host a speaker series on the topic of collaboration across backgrounds.

“I think the Crossing Divides Program is a terrific initiative,” Davis Parker LAW ’24 told the News. “In years past, these conversations were standard at YLS, but I think we sort of lost our way and our ability to debate one another with both rigor and respect.”

The program’s founding follows a string of free speech scandals at the Law School, which were often rooted in larger political tensions.

In September 2021, a Law School student’s email announcing a social event between the Native American Law Students Association and the Federalist Society sparked controversy for its alleged racial and misogynistic undertones, igniting discussions on racism and free speech.

In March 2022, Yale Law students protested a Federalist Society event that hosted conservative speaker Kristen Waggoner. Students criticized the Federalist Society for hosting Waggoner due to her role as general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a hate group. Last September, Judges James C. Ho and Elizabeth Branch decided to bar future Law School graduates from their clerkships over concerns about free speech culture at the Law School.

Jake McDonald LAW ’25 told the News that though there has not been much chatter about the program among Law School students, generally any effort to bring together students is a good thing, especially around difficult discussions about relevant current issues.  McDonald expressed some concern about the program, saying it might face an uphill battle due to the current “hyper-polarized political climate.”

However Yash Chauhan ’26, who is the founder and chairman of the undergraduate Moderate Party, told the News that initiatives like Crossing Divides provide Americans an opportunity to come together, transcending political differences and highlighting the commonalities shared among them.

“Our country needs each and every one of us to extend a hand to the other side and promote real dialogue,” Chauhan said.

The first event for the program is scheduled for Oct. 17, featuring Bob Bauer, former White House general counsel under the Obama administration, and Ben L. Ginsberg, former counsel to the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign. The speakers are expected to reflect on their professional experiences on opposing sides of the political sphere while maintaining “a true and lasting friendship,” per the announcement. The panel discussions are expected to continue in November where members of the Law School faculty will discuss how they have worked with and learned from individuals with different viewpoints. 

A full slate of events for the program is expected to be released early next year.

David Lat LAW ’99, author of a Substack newsletter, Original Jurisdiction, closely follows free speech controversies at the Law School, and he wrote that he appreciates the addition of the program. 

“I’m excited about Crossing Divides,” Lat wrote to the News. “In our age of high polarization, a program aimed at bridging political and ideological divides is very welcome.”

The program was made possible by the donation of philanthropist Ronnie Heyman LAW ’72, though the amount donated was not disclosed to the public. Heyman and her late husband Samuel J. Heyman ’60 have supported initiatives at the University including the Cullman-Heyman Tennis Center, the Heyman Chair in Legal Ethics at the Law School, the Heyman Federal Public Interest Fellowships and the Slifka Center and Heyman Commons kosher dining hall.

In the announcement, Gerken expressed gratitude to Heyman for her support of the program, as she said it facilitates the program’s aim of teaching law students how to navigate differences and uphold the highest values of the legal profession.

“At Yale Law School, we have a storied tradition of not only crossing divides, but forging friendships across divides,” Gerken wrote in the announcement. “I am grateful to Ronnie Heyman for providing us with this wonderful opportunity to bring in distinguished guests and work with our students on building skills that are vital to successful lawyering.”

Overall, Gerken expressed a commitment to “forging friendships across divides” at the Law School. She wrote that over the course of the year, program organizers intend to create more ways for law students to engage on critical issues and develop essential leadership skills.

Parker told the News that Gerken deserves credit for “having the gumption” to bring such a program to life. 

“Cultural changes take a long time, and I’m skeptical that any particular initiative will lead to transformational change overnight, but undoubtedly this is a step in the right direction,” Parker said. “The question is whether the YLS student body will respond. Dean Gerken and the faculty have made it clear where they stand on free speech. It’s up to us to follow their lead.”

Yale Law School is located at 127 Wall St.

Adam Walker is the University Editor of the Yale Daily News. He previously covered Yale Law School for the University desk. Originally from Long Island, New York, he is a rising junior in Branford College double majoring in Economics and American Studies.