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Cultural Importance of the New Harvard Law School Dean: John Manning

August 04, 2017
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The disconnect between the legal academy and the world it prepares students for can be stark. By one estimate, only 13% of professors at top-100 law school are conservative. By comparison, approximately 45% of federal circuit judges were appointed by Republicans, with more to come (137 seats lie open to President Trump to fill.) This has more real-world consequences than the political imbalance of, say, your average sociology department: a law school grad appearing before a Bush-appointed judge, who is not thoroughly familiar with originalist or conservative thinking, will not be best able to represent their client.

It was therefore a welcome surprise when, in early June, Harvard Law School named a conservative as its next dean. That HLS did this at a moment of increasingly acute partisan divide on campuses and in the country at large only underscores the importance, and boldness, of the move.

John Manning, the new HLS Dean, is the real deal as an academic: the author of two of the leading casebooks, one on statutory interpretation and regulations, and another on the federal courts system, and over forty articles, he was also the deputy dean. But, as a former Bork and Scalia clerk, Scalia co-author, and a leading textualist, his conservative bona fides are just as robust.

It’s easy for conservatives to think that their like is kept from the gates of the academy by overt partisan exclusion. But at this point, such exclusion is in large part a cultural phenomenon. The legal world is awash with smart, academically-inclined conservatives who hold judgeships, wonkish appellate litigation jobs, or positions at think tanks. But they often aren’t as interested in working in an environment where mainstream positions on national security or Constitutional law can be treated as alien, if not outre.

Therefore, the cultural message of the Manning appointment is very encouraging. Senior conservative academics have hailed the news, with Harvard Prof. Adrian Vermeule praising the promotion of “a great scholar, friend and human being.”

But importantly, left-wing figures have also been enthusiastic, including Justice Kagan, who was Dean of HLS before her appointment to the Supreme Court, and Martha Minow, the outgoing dean and an expert on ethnic and religious conflict.

In some ways, the message the appointment sends may redound more to the benefit of left-wing students. It’s the students who will be facing a half-conservative judiciary or interpreting contracts under laws passed by a Republican Congress, but who think the natural center lies somewhere between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonya Sotomayor, who stand to gain the most from more John Mannings in the legal academy.

At a time when Middlebury, Evergreen, and Berkeley have been rocked by politically-motivated violence, the sheer normalcy of the move—a respected academic and deputy dean elevated to dean—is deeply encouraging.

It’s easy at times for conservatives to criticize Harvard. But by the same token, it’s important to give credit where it’s due. I’m under no illusions this will cure all the country’s problems, but it’s a good step from an important institution. Three cheers for Harvard.

Nicholas M. Gallagher is a rising 2L and the Vice President of NYU’s Federalist Society chapter.

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