Yale University today (Feb. 21) turned to one of its professors to become the first female dean of its law school, the most highly ranked school of law in the U.S. The university said that Professor Heather Gerken, 48, one of the country’s leading experts on constitutional law and election law, will assume the deanship on July 1 of this year. She succeeds Robert C. Post who has held the job since 2009.
Gerken has taught at Yale for more than ten years, having been lured from Harvard Law School in 2006 after she believed the job in New Haven was a better fit for her and her husband, David Simon, a scholar specializing in African politics. At the time, Gerken and her husband had offers from Harvard, New York University, and Yale.
Harvard’s loss was clearly Yale’s very big gain. A former senior advisor to the Obama campaign in both 2008 and 2012, she has been called an “intellectual guru” in the New York Times. Her scholarship has been featured in The Atlantic, the Boston Globe, NPR, the New York Times, and Time. She has done substantial work on election reform, which has affected policy at a national level. In 2013, her proposal for creating a “Democracy Index”—a national ranking of election systems—was adopted by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which created the nation’s first Election Performance Index.
Even beyond her formidable bonafides in law, Gerken is an exemplary person outside the classroom. Among other things, she has written nine full-length vampire novels for her 13-year-old daughter, Anna. “I have written Anna as a heroine in the hope that she will feel the tug of her own heroism inside her,” Gerken wrote in a New York Times parenting blog last year. “Woven into my vampire tale is every bit of practical wisdom I know, what I want to tell her when she’s a teenager and therefore unwilling to listen. How to have a male best friend. How to be a high-functioning introvert. The difference between good nerds and angry nerds.”
A RENOWN TEACHER IN THE CLASSROOM
Gerken had clerked for Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit and Justice David Souter of the United States Supreme Court. She then practiced law for several years before joining the Harvard Law School faculty in 2000. Gerken came to Yale in 2006 and became the inaugural J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law in 2008. A native of Massachusetts, Gerken graduated from Princeton University, where she received her A.B. degree, summa cum laude in 1991. A Darrow Scholar, she graduated from the University of Michigan Law School summa cum laude in 1994. Gerken currently serves as a trustee for Princeton University.
Gerken brings a rich practice experience to the deanship, having worked as an appellate lawyer in Washington, D.C. At Yale, she created and runs the country’s most innovative clinic in local government law, the San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project (SFALP). Gerken will continue to run the SFALP clinic during her deanship, becoming one of the rare deans at a top law school to run a clinical program while serving in this capacity.
Gerken also brings plenty of cred to the classroom as a renowned teacher who has won awards at both Yale and Harvard. The university said she was named one of the nation’s “twenty-six best law teachers” in a book published by the Harvard University Press.
YALE LAW SCHOOL EMBODIES BEST IN PRACTICE & THEORY
“Yale Law School is a remarkable institution, one that has trained the finest lawyers in the country for generations. It embodies the best in practice and in theory, a rare combination,” says Gerken in a statement. “The Yale Law School community has always drawn strength from its diversity and its deep commitment to the values of the profession. I am thrilled to take on this role and hope to build on that legacy as we train a generation of lawyers and academics to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”
The university said the search committee for the new dean was chaired by Paul W. Kahn ’80. Committee members were Stephen Carter ’79, Amy Chua, Jonathan Macey ’82, Claire Priest ’00, James Silk ’89, and Kate Stith.
“Yale Law School is very lucky to be able to draw on the energy, brilliance, and leadership of Heather Gerken,” says Dean Post in a statement. “This is a time of change in the nation and in legal education, and Heather is perfectly situated to take the helm of this extraordinary place. She has the entire confidence of the School.”
DEAN POST LED AN INITIATIVE TO BRING BACK DORM LIVING TO THE LAW SCHOOL
The school noted that Dean Post spearheaded the Baker Hall initiative to bring back dormitory living to the law school. The construction for the project is slated to begin this summer. During his tenure, Post also attracted younger faculty representing a range of academic disciplines to the law school, expanded clinical and experiential learning, and launched the nation’s first Ph.D. in Law program.
Professor Gerken has published extensively. Her work has been featured in the Harvard Law Review, the Yale Law Journal, the Stanford Law Review and numerous popular publications. Her work has been the subject of four symposia, and she has served as a commentator for a number of major media outlets, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, NPR, CNN, MSNBC, and NBC News. She was featured in the National Law Journal for balancing teaching and research, won a Green Bag award for legal writing, and has testified before the Senate three times.