After 18 years, Professor Alford completes his tenure as vice dean for the Graduate Program and ILS

On June 30, Professor William P. Alford ’77 completed 18 years as vice dean for the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies at Harvard Law School.  During his tenure, the law school transformed its international programs, adding impressively to its faculty, expanding its curriculum, launching its first international exchange programs, and making it possible for unprecedented numbers of the world’s strongest law students to attend Harvard.

After nearly two decades in the role, Alford has now passed the torch to Mark Wu, the Henry L. Stimson Professor at HLS and a leading scholar of trade and economic law.

“I am delighted that Mark is now vice dean,” Alford says of Wu. “He’s wonderfully brilliant, has rich and varied international experience, and is a generous and caring human being. He’s going to do great things.”

In addition to his vice deanship of the Graduate Program and ILS, Wu is faculty co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and is affiliated with East Asian Legal Studies at HLS. He also serves on the Advisory Board of the World Trade Organization Chairs Programme, and on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Trade and Investment.

For the coming academic year, Alford will continue to support the Graduate Program and ILS as senior advisor to John F. Manning ’85, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean of Harvard Law School and to Vice Dean Wu. Alford will also continue to serve as Jerome A. and Joan L. Cohen Professor of East Asian Legal Studies, for which he gave the inaugural lecture in 2018, Director of the East Asian Legal Studies Program, and chair of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability (HPOD).

“Bill Alford is a first-rate scholar with deep international experience. Throughout his long and distinguished leadership of the Graduate and International Legal Studies programs, he has done phenomenal work advancing international opportunities at Harvard Law School and building a vibrant community of people who come to HLS from around the world to teach, and learn from, one another,” said Dean Manning. “I’m very grateful to Bill for his contributions. The positive impact of his work will reverberate for many years to come.”

Looking back, Alford ruefully admits he was initially reluctant to accept the position. But persuaded by then Dean Robert Clark ’72, Alford saw opportunities to build on the law school’s long tradition of excellence in international and comparative law, and on the many accomplishments of the previous two faculty directors, Professor David Kennedy ’80 and Anne-Marie Slaughter ’85.

Alford served multiple years on the Lateral Appointments Committee as the School enhanced the faculty’s international expertise by adding globally-eminent scholars in areas including public international law, international trade, Islamic law, international human rights, international humanitarian law, international finance, the law of foreign relations, and beyond. He also helped many HLS colleagues who had built their reputations chiefly in U.S. law further develop their international and comparative law interests, and established a program of “Affiliated Faculty” that brought into the HLS orbit some of the greatest scholars at other Harvard schools whose work engaged with issues of international and comparative law (such as Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen who is Thomas Lamont University Professor at Harvard). And he made it possible for a rich array of distinguished foreign visitors, several of them HLS graduates, to teach at the school multiple times, including the former Chief Justice of the South African Constitutional Court Sandile Ngcobo LL.M. ’86, former Dean of the Universidad de los Andes Helena Alviar Garcia LL.M. ’97 S.J.D. ’01, and the former Dean of Seoul National University’s law school and former World Trade Organization Appellate Body Member Seung Wha Chang LL.M. ’92 S.J.D. ’94.

Alford also fostered a growing internationalization of the law school’s curriculum and co-curricular activity. More than a decade ago, Harvard became one of the first law schools to require all J.D. students to take at least one foundational international or comparative law class. Beyond these core 20 courses, the law school now offers some 70 additional classes that are wholly or in significant part focused on international or comparative law. Another of Alford’s early initiatives was the launch of a program to allow students to earn credit while spending a semester abroad. HLS now has formal exchange programs with 10 leading foreign law schools around the globe and an HLS-University of Cambridge Joint Degree Program. Through programs like these, and many other opportunities now in place at HLS, hundreds of students study or work abroad in a typical year.

The law school’s graduate students have always been a particular focus for Alford, and he says it is an article of faith for him that its LL.M. and S.J.D. students greatly enrich the entire Harvard community. Harvard’s LL.M. program is one of a small handful anywhere in the world to admit students irrespective of financial need and career goals, while also awarding financial aid according to demonstrated need. Over the years, Alford devoted extensive effort to sustaining this policy, leading him, for example, to develop an innovative matching gift program in support of graduate student financial aid—with the great help of the late John F. Cogan Jr. ’52, Domenico de Sole LL.M. ’72, and other friends across the globe.

“That is the right thing to do,” says Alford, “but it also is the smart thing to do, as it enables Harvard to enroll the best and most diverse range of graduate students—in terms of geographic and demographic background, life experience, and intellectual and professional aspirations—of any U.S. law school. I am especially proud of the fact that in a typical year, we have graduate students from more than 65 jurisdictions, including by far the largest and most geographically diverse contingent of students from Africa of our peer institutions.”

In the words of Ruth Okediji LL.M. ’91 S.J.D. ’96 and Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law Alford has “impacted many, many lives—including mine. There are nations that will never be the same because of his gracious tenacity and commitment to enabling the Graduate Program to support students—rich and poor; from every nation, tribe and creed.”

Alford has been much engaged with the S.J.D. program, both in building it up institutionally and in working with many students individually. The law school’s 60 S.J.D. students take part in the most demanding doctoral program in law in the U.S. Each works with at least three faculty supervisors in different fields of study, and must pass customized multi-hour oral exams, present two colloquia, and complete and defend lengthy works of original scholarship. Graduates include a former President of the Republic of China, a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and faculty (including several who served as deans) at leading universities worldwide, including Columbia, National Taiwan University, NYU, the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), Renmin University of China, Seoul National University, Tel Aviv, Toronto, the Universidad de los Andes, the University of Ghana, and Virginia, among others. The HLS faculty itself includes eight graduates of the program.

One, Professor Okediji, writes that Alford “wasn’t just a teacher; he was also an intellectual refuge. I could raise questions, bounce ideas [and] scrutinize things with him.”

“He has an eye for identifying promising young scholars,” she added, “and instills in them both the hunger and the competence to really push intellectually and maximize what the law school has to offer, so that they can take that home and impact our world. This is just another example of how Harvard Law School has enabled the cultivation of many generations who are transforming the way that international law is made—challenging assumptions, working out policies, and transforming the lives of people around them.”

Alford’s work as a scholar, teacher and academic administrative leader has been widely recognized. Of particular note, in 2010, the University of Geneva awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Law and in 2015, the Harvard Law School Association presented him its annual award, with a citation commending his scholarship in Chinese law, his work on disability rights, his being a “law professor par excellence,” and his “visionary leadership” that “represent[s] the best qualities of Harvard Law School.”

In 2019, a leading Chinese academic society, the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law, awarded him its annual Li Buyun Prize in recognition of his scholarship and work on disability rights (the stipend for which Alford, in turn, donated to Special Olympics China).

Alford looks forward to continuing to work with students from all the school’s degree programs. “The best part of being at HLS is the opportunity to work closely with such amazing students,” he says. “I constantly learn from them and love the ways that connecting with them keeps me on my toes.”

It is a sentiment reciprocated by his former students. Rita E. Hauser Professor of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law Gabriella Blum LL.M. ’01, S.J.D. ’03, wrote: “There is a universal agreement that the word that best describes Bill is Mensch. As anyone who was fortunate enough to be in the graduate program under his leadership knows, Bill’s warmth, wisdom, endless encouragement and sound advice turn every working and teaching relationship into a collaborative endeavor. I was Bill’s student, research assistant, and mentee. And my success was as important to him as it was to me.”

He is also looking forward to having a little more time to complete several scholarly projects (including a study of Roscoe Pound’s engagement with China), to do more teaching (including a class he pioneered in 2013 that brings students from HLS and Renmin University of China together electronically to discuss challenging issues in the U.S.-China relationship), to continue his pro bono work on disability with HPOD and as lead director of Special Olympics International’s board, and to stay involved with the Harvard men’s varsity hockey team as faculty advisor.

In concluding his decanal role, he is especially grateful to the “amazingly talented and unbelievably devoted administrative team” and thrilled with Mark Wu’s appointment.

And Wu returns the compliment: “Bill has done such a terrific job strengthening the Graduate Program and ILS, and I’m honored to be following in his footsteps,” Wu says.