Martha Minow on the legacies of Brown v. Board of Education

‘What justice demands of us, no one person can do alone.’

Looking back and ahead with Martha Minow

Credit: Jessica Scranton Martha Minow became dean of Harvard Law School in 2009, after 28 years on the faculty. "There were so many treasures of the school I didn’t know," she says, "so many extraordinary people to make it all work."

Martha Minow became Harvard Law School’s 12th dean in 2009, after teaching at HLS since 1981. During her tenure, the school’s clinics and public service activities have grown substantially; the faculty, staff, and student body have become increasingly diverse; and students, staff, and faculty have pursued innovation and entrepreneurship. She has overseen the development of dynamic new spaces, including a campus crossroads; strengthened ties to the profession and connections to the university; and led the largest alumni reunion—and the most successful fundraising year—in the school’s history. In January, Dean Minow announced her intention to step down at the end of the academic year. This spring she spoke with the Bulletin about the institution she loves, the future of legal education and what she looks forward to next.


When you first became dean, what was your top priority?

It was 2009, the time of a global financial disaster. The endowment of the university declined by 30 percent; law firms and public interest offices let lawyers go and shrunk hiring. The first decision on my desk was whether to proceed with constructing a building; it was already designed, contracts were signed, and the construction was ready to go, but the funding and future prospects for funding made proceeding risky. Whether to proceed with the building was emblematic of the larger question of the school’s future.

I made the decision to go ahead. It was the right decision, and it has been transformative. I’m grateful to Elena Kagan, Dan Meltzer, and all the people who designed and built the Wasserstein Hall, Caspersen Student Center, Clinical Wing Building—the WCC. The superb facilities team pursued some value engineering, finding ways to make the building more cost-effective. Now, the beautiful space magnifies our very best resource, which is our people. Students, faculty, and staff now easily and eagerly move in and out of clinics, classrooms, activities, and meals, as all are now under one roof; it is enticing to spend more time with each other. I also made the decision to tear down part of Pound—I like to call it half-Pound—so that we’d have a crossroads on campus, which we’d never had before.

I believe, with Jane Jacobs [author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”], that the serendipitous meeting of diverse people is the engine of creativity. With the crossroads and the building, people bump into friends and meet new people, and ideas and discussions grow.

What’s one of the things you’ve accomplished that you’re proudest of?

Nobody can be in this role without being part of a team, and all the great developments over the past eight years reflect the extraordinary efforts and talents of a lot of people. I’m really proud that we have not only stabilized financially, but we have invested considerably more in financial aid, in loan forgiveness and in clinics. With 80 percent of students now engaged in clinical work, with many new clinics and new clinical faculty, the law school every day is pursuing justice, as well as studying law. Strengthening diversity along many dimensions—for our faculty, and our students, and our staff—has been a priority. We’ve been building better ties to practice, to business and innovation, to policymaking locally and globally—while also strengthening collaborations across the university, and indeed across the world. It is thrilling to see new initiatives in criminal justice, corporate accountability, health policy, environmental law, food safety and quality, animal law, Islamic legal studies, and many other fields. It is a particular joy to have 40 new and wonderful faculty colleagues.

If you think back on your deanship, is there one image that most fills you with joy?

We just had the Freedom Seder, which is put together by students. The year after Dr. Martin Luther King was killed, the tradition of the Freedom Seder began as a collaboration between Jewish and black groups, and now many other students are involved. Sitting in that room with so many people with such different backgrounds, all talking about journeys, challenges, narratives of exodus, and freedom, and what we have to learn from each other—that’s pretty powerful.

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Minow was recently profiled by Lincoln Caplan ’76.

Read the article in Harvard Magazine »


Another powerful memory is our moot courts. To see students, whom I remember welcoming as 1Ls, rise to the occasion as dazzlingly effective finalist oralists, and to hear judges who report, “You’re as good as the very best who appear before us,” this is moving and meaningful.

Then there is the library session we just held, “Notes and Comment,” where faculty and students, assisted by library staff, met in a kind of “speed-mentoring,” with intense explorations of students’ new ideas for scholarship. It was fabulous.

And here is one more image. A room in the WilmerHale Legal Services Center in Jamaica Plain is now decorated with the artwork of elementary school students who had been invited to portray what justice looks like in their neighborhoods; our students mentored those students, and helped explain how they provide legal services in the community.

You directed the Admissions team to seek more admitted students with work experience and more military veterans, and you encouraged admission of more women, more students of color, and more students from other countries. How do these developments change the way law students learn and what they do here?

The growing diversity of all kinds in the composition of our student body complements and enhances large changes in the way we teach and learn—in a more collaborative environment in which experience, knowledge of the world, and differences in background and perspective make us stronger and better. We now have over 250 classes offered in settings of 25 or fewer students, and we are more focused on collaboration, problem-solving skills, and hands-on learning, enabling individuals to grow and also to learn from one another. One new kind of offering is lab courses. Students work alongside a faculty member pursuing an interest or project; students participate by producing their own work while collaborating on a larger effort, which may be a blog or research, and those efforts have attracted interest and attention among judges, policymakers, and journalists. Lab course projects, such as the labor law blog and the anti-corruption blog, have become resources in their fields and beyond, reflecting the talents of the students and involvement of faculty. We have students who are extraordinary—we always have. Their initiative, questions and passions give me hope every day.

You’ve been instrumental in supporting initiatives that help prepare students for the changing legal profession and new opportunities to use legal training in varied settings. What do you see as the next big challenge for legal education?

What it means to be a lawyer will differ more 20 years from now than today differs from 20 years ago, due to digital resources, globalization, and the acceleration of changes across industries and societies. We support and encourage innovation here because we know one thing for sure: For the rest of their lives, current students will learn continually and reinvent themselves, in order to serve clients, create and run enterprises, and tackle social problems. This calls on us to help people—students, faculty, staff, alumni—learn how they learn, how to be self-reliant, and to think about what should endure amid disruption and innovation. How can artificial intelligence improve access to justice? How can analysis of big data assist democracy? What does fairness look like as people from different societies compete and collaborate? Working in teams, working with and designing technologies, deploying the languages of finance and statistics, gaining competence with cultural differences will all be key, as will be comfort with risk, uncertainty, and change.

Law schools have obligations not simply to serve society as it currently is, but also to envision and advance its future. For that, we need the tools that allow for external critique as well as internal critique of the law.


Our students are bringing legal skills to Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, and they are also innovators themselves. It is terrific to see them competing—and prevailing!—in campuswide, and global, competitions, generating new ideas and new ventures. Those skills and ways of thinking will be invaluable in the future.

Our Library Innovation Lab is a wonderful model. Among its innovations is H2O, a collaborative digital casebook platform. Another is Perma.cc, a way to preserve otherwise disappearing online resources with a protocol allowing libraries, courts and other institutions around the world to share the task. Financing legal education and higher education so young people from any background can attend and can pursue their dreams is a vital challenge, and so is devising workable business models for legal services for poor and middle-class people.

You’ve fostered connections across disciplines. I wondered where that impulse came from for you, and why it’s fruitful for the law school.

In 1987, I published an article called “Law Turning Outward,” in which I looked at the explosion of legal scholarship using other disciplines, such as economics, literature and sociology. These developments have only expanded since then. This reflects the fact that increasing numbers of people are combining other graduate programs with legal education. Serious problems tend to be too big and complex for any one discipline to provide adequate responses. Law schools have obligations not simply to serve society as it currently is, but also to envision and advance its future. For that, we need the tools that allow for external critique as well as internal critique of the law. We continue to have great scholarly energy directed at making sense of legal doctrine and legal institutions. A real virtue of our size is that we can support a strong portfolio of many different kinds of scholarship. Bringing other disciplines to bear only deepens our understanding of the legal system. History, economics, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, comparative and international studies—these are fantastic resources. The large number of faculty and students with advanced training in other disciplines enriches our conversations, our understandings, and our imaginations.

Empirical study of law, using quantitative and qualitative approaches, allows us to ask: How well are we doing? How well does a given rule or practice work? Who is helped and who is not? Does a particular institution work? Do people really need a lawyer in situations when it might be just as effective to give them access to easily understandable information about the law? The same rigorous techniques that helped medicine develop—evidence-based assessments—guide scholarship here and elsewhere. This means looking at experience with particular laws, regulations, institutional designs and social norms. There’s great promise here in making genuine improvements, based on facts rather than intuitions or ideologies.

You mentioned history. As we get ready to celebrate the school’s bicentennial, what in particular do historians bring to the training of future lawyers?

To be able to imagine how the world could be different from the way it is, this is what study of history, comparative law and even science fiction can offer. Historians help us see continuity and change, and to take a long view is really invaluable. Short-term thinking gets us into lots of trouble. Harvard now has the most extraordinary group of legal historians. To read their work, and to hear students informed by their teaching, is to gain understanding of unanticipated effects of laws from ancient Greece, early Chinese society, and medieval Europe, to the founding era of the U.S. Constitution, the 19th century, and the 1960s in the United States. History helps us see the influences of personality and external forces like war and economic change; history allows us to address mistaken judgments, and to understand why others stand the test of time.

Martha Minow

Credit: Martha Stewart

You’ve spoken about your vision of HLS as not just a law school, but a justice school. I’m wondering if that’s something that can be realized, or if it always has to be aspirational.

I have long wondered why we call the enterprise a law school and not a justice school. Look, medical schools are not called health schools. But we need to remember that the point of law and the point of medicine are to serve society, not simply to advance expert knowledge systems and the states of those with expertise. What justice does and should mean is a debate, and we need to have it.

It’s a plus, not a minus, to see different people from the school on opposite sides of the same litigation and on opposite sides of many debates. Justice advances when we engage in the debate, and by pressure from many different perspectives.

My friend Avi Soifer, dean at University of Hawaii, evocatively describes justice not as a place, but as a direction, like north. Lawyers do not have a monopoly on knowledge about what justice is or can be. But lawyers, at our best, help to construct the conversations around what justice should be and which processes can best promote it. More than ever I think we need to draw on the capacities lawyers have to frame meaningful debates and conversations, to promote reasoned and respectful discussions, to test alleged facts, and to enable people with differences and disagreements to live, work, and flourish together.

Lawyers also have an ability to take problems down to their core, take them apart and come up with many approaches toward achieving desirable goals. When we work to persuade, we develop understandings of the intents and desires of others. What justice demands of us, no one person can do alone.

What are you looking forward to in the next chapter of your career?

I love teaching and learning with students, and I love scholarship. I have taught each semester while serving as dean and I’ve been able to do a little scholarship, but I will be happy to be able to do more of both. I am also looking forward to being more engaged in issues in the larger world, the freedom to speak in my own voice and the time to work on the causes that I care about.

What books are waiting for you on your nightstand?

Right now, “Wonderland,” by Steven Johnson, which explores how great inventions emerged from seeming amusements; “Power Play,” by Asi Burak and Laura Parker, which examines video games, like those released by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s iCivics, that are designed to try to produce social change; Gish Jen’s “The Girl at the Baggage Claim,” examining the cultural differences between the East and the West; and Eric Weitz’s “Weimar Germany,” tracing the seeds of Nazism.

What do you wish people knew about Harvard Law School?

Even though I became dean after 28 years on the faculty, there were so many treasures of the school I didn’t know, so many extraordinary people to make it all work. We are a place of deep and diverse research programs; an extraordinary library now digitizing its extensive and unique materials; rigorous and compassionate staff ensuring a caring community, environmental sustainability, and cost-effective facilities; so many innovations in teaching and in delivering legal services; such intriguing cross-fertilization—between human rights and environmental advocacy, between veterans legal assistance and computer programming. And it is a community of caring people, helping one another during difficult times, celebrating life passages, nurturing capacities as artists, athletes, advocates and satirists. So many people join the staff and stay for a long, long time. So many students make friends with people who differ in views and backgrounds. Each day holds moments to relish and cherish.

If you had one piece of advice for your successor, what would it be?

Listen.