Michael R. Klein attended Harvard Law School on a Brandeis Fellowship and received his LL.M. degree in 1967. Last year, after more than 35 years as a corporate lawyer, he cut back on his practice at WilmerHale in Washington, D.C., to concentrate on his own business and nonprofit ventures. He is president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation (which makes annual awards for fiction writing) and has founded a new organization, the Sunlight Project, to fight corruption in Congress. In 2004 he made a gift to Harvard Law School establishing the Michael R. Klein Professorship of Law.
What’s the Sunlight Project?
Louis Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants.” I founded a business, CoStar Group Inc., that assembles and disseminates online data about billions of square feet of commercial real estate throughout the U.S. and Great Britain. The Sunlight Project combines these two ideas. It will try to provide transparency through online access for reporters, bloggers and citizens to all the information required to be disclosed about lobbyists, political contributions, personal financial interests of senators and congressmen, travel and entertainment of politicians, government contracts, the revolving door and the like. We will also push for legislation to increase the availability of other information about the corrupting effect of money in government.
What prompted you to start the project?
A growing revulsion at what’s happened to the Congress. If they were to pass legislation tomorrow confirming the day of the week, it would likely have a half dozen special interest riders. My two sons led me to realize that a significant part of their generation thinks democracy isn’t worth engagement or even respect. For an old 1960s activist like myself, that was the tipping point.
Why did you become involved with the PEN/Faulkner Foundation?
Contemporary American fiction is perhaps the glory of our national culture. Meeting great writers and bringing their work not only to adult readers but into urban public schools through PEN/Faulkner’s Writers in Schools program are exciting activities that drew me into it. A recent Harvard study of the gaps in aptitude test scores between high school students of various races and economic segments found that leisure reading is a key indicator of successful performance. So the program is making an important contribution.
You’re a trustee of the American Himalayan Foundation. How did that happen?
My wife and I trekked in Nepal about 30 years ago. It’s beautiful and the people outside the government are lovely. One of my best friends started the American Himalayan Foundation and invited me to join its board. The AHF now serves about 75,000 people through an array of indigenously managed health, education and cultural programs. My favorite is the Hospital for the Rehabilitation of Disabled Children outside Kathmandu, where a saintly man, Dr. Banskota, repairs the broken and distorted limbs of thousands of impoverished children and trains orthopedic surgeons.
You’ve been one of Harvard Law School’s strongest supporters. Why?
I believe that those who are fortunate have an obligation to repay moral obligations and contribute to the public good. It was a generous fellowship that enabled me to attend Harvard, which proved invaluable. Performing well academically was important for my self-confidence. The credential of an HLS degree opened up career opportunities. Relationships with HLS classmates became important in my business activities. The culmination of all those factors has enabled me to pay Harvard back, in annual giving and reunion campaigns, in the form of the chair and in supporting the work of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute, which seeks to continue the important civil rights efforts that captured the hearts of my generation. It’s a continuing pleasure that I hope to extend.