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The Man of the Moment, continued

Clark understands the different paths people can take. He began his own career on the road to the priesthood, studying at seminary and later earning a Ph.D. in philosophy. He planned to teach philosophy while concentrating on social sciences, and came to the law school hoping to learn more about society and organizations. And, though at first the notion of "thinking like a lawyer" jolted him, he liked what he found--the law school as a window on understanding large organizations. He would go on to write one of the definitive legal texts on corporations.

"He was a brilliant student and a great scholar," said Professor Emeritus Victor Brudney, Clark's teacher and mentor at HLS. "His Corporations treatise is simply nonpareil."

After graduation, Clark worked for two years at Boston's Ropes & Gray before receiving an offer to teach at Yale Law School. The school granted him tenure in three years, a record at the time. But he was attracted to the qualities of Harvard Law that he still celebrates: its sense of a metropolis, not a village, a lively and engaging and unpredictable and sometimes unwieldy intellectual environment.

He became enmeshed in it quickly as an HLS professor in the '80s, finding some students thirsting to learn business law and others on campus disapproving of teaching law and economics in any course outside of antitrust. At the same time, Clark criticized elements of the critical legal studies movement (which challenges traditional approaches to the law and emphasizes using the law to achieve social justice) and, by extension, the several HLS professors considered its leading adherents.

Such opinions may have been acceptable coming from a professor. But it was not, for some, acceptable for that professor to become dean. In public comments, several faculty members, as well as the Harvard Crimson, spoke against the appointment, calling Clark too ideological, too rigid, too polarizing to lead a faculty already rife with tension over bitter tenure debates and campus unrest.

Bok well understood the atmosphere on campus. For he had been not only a Harvard Law student, but a faculty member and dean of the law school himself. Of the many decanal appointments he made as Harvard University president, he agonized over this one like no other. But when he made his decision and the criticism followed, he did not relent or apologize. Indeed, in a way, the response showed him that Clark was precisely the person for the job.

Derek Bok greets Robert Clark
Former Harvard University President Derek Bok '54 greets Robert Clark shortly after choosing him to be dean of HLS.

"I really did feel that the conditions of the school were so heated and so politicized that no strong appointment could possibly escape criticism from some quarter," said Bok. "It might have been conceivable to find someone that no one would criticize very much, probably because the individual involved was either so chameleon-like in his point of view or so lacking in any point of view that nobody would have anything to criticize. But that clearly was not the kind of dean we needed."

In addition to the initial faculty concerns, some students also voiced dismay over the appointment, complaining that Clark was too corporate-focused. And the dean does value the private sector and will not denigrate it as some want him to, he says. He contends, however, that he wants the law school to train leaders for all parts of society, and it is the pay disparity--not the law school's influence--that leads many graduates to law firms, where they can indeed do much good for the world. "I got into trouble, I think, because I did not ever engage in a ritual critique of the private sector as part of our reasoning for giving special assistance to those contemplating the public sector," he said. "I think that one of the reasons some people can maintain their resolve to enter or remain in the public sector--or the nonprofit world, which hosts most law teaching--despite the wretched salaries, is that they think, 'I am doing good and the others are doing bad.' That is what some use as a psychological tool to reinforce their socially good but hard-to-sustain choices. My view is that the second half of the argument is not right and is often counterproductive to the goal of creating good public-private relationships. Most of the value in society is created in the private sector, and even those committed to public service need to face up to that squarely and realize that, though many of our graduates are going into the private sector, they will nevertheless contribute to the advancement of overall human welfare."

Students would later protest Clark's decision to disband the school's discrete public-interest advising operation (he soon reinstated it) and hold sit-ins to increase diversity on campus. But according to Lisa Ferrell '90, who chaired a student-formed committee on the dean search, the majority of students approved the appointment, eased by Clark's willingness to listen to them.

"I was then and continue to be a fan of Dean Clark," said Ferrell, now an attorney in Little Rock, Ark. "He met with students. He met with our group. He met with students who were concerned. I thought he did a great deal to reach out."

As a new dean, Clark also aimed to bring the faculty together. And, belying some of his critics, he aimed to do it by being respectful and understanding of every point of view. "I made a vow to myself to never seek revenge against colleagues who opposed me and to forgive people for their foibles," he said.

He created and chaired an appointments committee, listened and persuaded and eventually saw the infighting turn to reconciliation. Professor Laurence Tribe '66, who chaired the faculty search committee for a new dean, says Clark fostered a calmer, more productive atmosphere. "There are those who thrive on conflict who would say that that was bad and he was suppressing division, but I don't think that he was suppressing anything," he said. "It was pretty clear that rabble-rousing was not going to achieve very much during the time he was dean and that things were on an even keel, and for people who want to get on with their own work and want to spend time with their students on substantive matters and not be engaged by faculty politics, it was probably a welcome change."

Clark succeeded not only by lessening conflict, said Tribe, but by showing support for faculty members' work, both on and off campus. One professor who initially spoke against Clark's becoming dean noted recently that he always read everything the faculty produced. He values scholars and scholarship and engaged in the intellectual life of the school, even when he was away from the school, as he frequently had to be.

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