Jacques Salès path to the law, to Harvard, and eventually to the top HLSA post began in Haiti, where he was born into a family of lawyers, including his father and both grandfathers. He attended French Catholic school until he was 18. Disturbed by the great gulf between rich and poor on the island, young Salès was drawn to ideas of social justice, of decolonization and anti-imperialism. He was fascinated by Fidel Castro fighting in the Sierra Maestra against the dictator of Cuba. At first he countered family expectations that he attend university in France and opted instead to obtain a law degree from the University of Haiti, where he participated in underground movements against Haitian dictator "Papa Doc" Duvalier. At age 21, after a long period of bloody repression of Haitian students strikes, Salès left for Paris. In 1966 he received his doctorate in law from the University of Paris, summa cum laude.
In the early 60s, while a student in Paris, Salès read an article in Newsweek about Kingman Brewster 48, president of Yale and a former HLS professor. "It opened my eyes to the world of American universities," he says, and triggered his decision to study in America. He chose Harvards LL.M. program rather than attend Yale, NYU, and UPenn., where he was also accepted.
Arriving in Cambridge, "I had the impression of being at the center of the universe," says Salès. The 24-year-old no longer considered himself a radical but nonetheless expected to face rejection in America if he did not espouse conservative views. Much to his surprise, he "found real democracy and dialogue at Harvard Law School. It was the Vietnam War era. I saw how people from the left and right could discuss and argue but respect each others views."
He was also struck by how different the American system of education was, particularly the Law Schools emphasis on the case method. Louis Loss had a notable impact on Salès, in the Corporations course. "Loss knew how to teach and get people involved in the material, but he also brought the experiences of his practice of law, work with the SEC," and more.
After graduation, Salès returned to France, his chosen home. Following the murders of dear friends at the hands of Papa Doc several years earlier, "I suspended my relationship to Haiti," he says. (Later, in the late 1980s he valiantly led efforts in France to recoup for Haiti some of the vast fortune "Baby Doc" Duvalier stole and took to France in exile; unfortunately, the French supreme court, reversing the court of appeals, ultimately held that France did not have jurisdiction to try Duvalier on the merits.)
Business already draws Salès to the United States four or five times each year. Now his visits will increase, to keep up with his HLSA agenda. "For a man of my background, with Haitian roots, an LL.M. degree holder, to become president of the best and brightest alumni it could only happen in this country," he says. "I feel proud, and grateful to my fellow alumni. I am determined to spare no effort to act on their behalf."