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The Man of the Moment

Stepping down after 14 years as dean, Robert Clark ' 72 has changed the institution with the money he raised, the faculty he nurtured and the programs he shaped. Underlying it all is an unflagging devotion to Harvard Law School.

It was the night of Robert Clark's final performance as dean. True, he would go on to perform as dean in the usual way--leading faculty meetings, giving speeches, meeting with alumni--for a few more months. But on March 8, he strode on stage for the last time as the 800-pound gorilla at Harvard Law School. Literally. The student parody, as it had for the last 10 years, featured a certain special guest, this time in disguise. Wearing a hairy suit, the dean eventually ripped off a rubber ape mask to reveal the man behind the facade, a man who, before the curtain closed, expressed his love for the students. "We love you, Bob," a young woman shouted back, and people applauded and at that moment seemed to understand the heft he has brought to Harvard Law School and the devotion he feels to the institution and everyone who is a part of it.

His show of unbridled affection was perhaps rare for a person more prone to reflection, whose passions are stirred by scholarship and ideas. But Robert Clark ' 72 can still surprise people, even after 14 years as leader of the most prominent law school in the world. From the start, he surprised some with his effectiveness at raising money for the school. He surprised others with his ability to quell faculty discontent. And, for someone dubbed a "traditionalist," he surprised too by overseeing fundamental change to the structure of the law school in the Strategic Plan, which has already transformed the student experience and will transform the school in myriad other ways.

"I think the school had arrived at a point where change was possible given a certain kind of leadership," said former Harvard University President Neil Rudenstine, Clark's boss for 10 years, "and I think Bob provided that leadership at that moment."

Nevertheless, Clark says he never coveted the deanship. Nor did he expect to get it. But he was compelled by duty to accept it. Now, as he prepares to leave the job and, after a sabbatical, return to the school as a professor, the senior dean at Harvard University has forged a legacy at HLS that some say is just as strong and just as lasting as its most legendary deans.

According to Visiting Professor Daniel Coquillette ' 71, who is writing a history of HLS, Clark belongs in the company of school leaders like Story, Langdell, Pound and, most comparably, Griswold, for their long service and major contributions to the institution. "No other dean of Harvard Law School has really made the kinds of appointments he made," said Coquillette. "Other deans have done remarkable things, but what Clark did [is] build a foundation for the future. . . . My personal opinion is that 20 or 30 years later we'll have a better appreciation of what he did than we do now."

Raising money is the means, Coquillette says. But it's what you do with the money that counts. The renovation of the Langdell library, completed in 1997, is the most visible example. But, behind the scenes, Clark also devoted money to an unprecedented number of faculty appointments, hiring 39 new tenured and tenure-track professors. In addition, the school enhanced the curriculum during his deanship to include more than 250 elective courses, added resources to existing research programs and introduced several more, including empirical legal studies, Internet and society, and Islamic legal studies. The Strategic Plan, which the faculty approved in 2000, has changed the 1L experience at HLS for the first time in decades, reducing section size and establishing cohesive "law colleges." More is to come, based on a $400 million campaign to fund the plan, which also calls for improved infrastructure and more faculty, interdisciplinary training, financial aid, research and international initiatives.

The changes spearheaded by Clark demonstrate his "willingness to face up to a long-standing reality about the school, and that was that a lot of students didn't like being there," said Derek Bok '54, former Harvard University president, who chose Clark as dean. "They valued the education they got, but they didn't regard it as a particularly pleasant experience. There was always a significant minority who did, but there were far too many who didn't, and Bob was willing to take that on and was able to introduce changes in a way that seems to have made a substantial dent in that problem."

Sometimes, Clark acknowledged, he struggled to change an institution at which change happens slowly. He worked, he says, to get faculty to look at the demands of the external world, to overlook what was important merely on campus and focus on what the school should prepare its graduates for: "I felt very good about getting a planning process going that didn't lead to people just saying, 'Gee, the library's run down; let's build a new one,' but led people to think: 'We ought to build on our international operations because law practice and legal scholarship are going global. We ought to build on our interdisciplinary studies because that is the way the insight-producing academic trends are going. We ought to connect to the world of practice because otherwise our law school will become irrelevant.'"

"The idea that you could just prepare students by instruction in a few standard subjects and that would be enough struck me as ridiculous," he added. "We need to broaden our teaching and scholarship and realize that not everyone has to take the same path."

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