‘My life was going to have to deal with issues of social injustice’

Dean Martha Minow of the Law School follows E.O. Wilson in the Experience series, interviews with Harvard faculty covering the reasons they became teachers and scholars, and the personal journeys, missteps included, behind their professional success. Interviews with Melissa Franklin, Stephen Greenblatt, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Steven Pinker, Laurel Ulrich, Helen Vendler, and Walter Willett will appear in coming weeks.

Raised in Chicago’s northern suburbs and in Washington, D.C., Martha L. Minow is the daughter of Josephine Minow, a civic activist, and Newton Minow, who chaired the Federal Communications Commission under President John F. Kennedy and was also a longtime partner in a leading Chicago law firm. In addition, Newton Minow served as an adviser to Adlai Stevenson during his 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns. The twin realms of public service and the law would indelibly shape the aspirations of Minow and her two sisters, Nell and Mary.

Minow joined the Harvard Law School faculty in 1981, and became its 12th dean in 2009. Her career has been one of deep engagement with issues of equality and human rights, of moving between scholarship and action in pursuit of her wide range of intellectual interests. Following the ethnic conflict during the Kosovo War in the 1990s, she served on the Independent International Commission on Kosovo, a panel that examined human rights violations, the efficacy of diplomatic efforts, and the legality of NATO intervention. In 2009, she was appointed by President Obama, her former student, to the board of the Legal Services Corporation, a government-sponsored nonprofit that funds civil legal aid programs for low-income Americans. Her work in the classroom has been praised for its engaging use of multiple modes of teaching and learning, and the Law School graduation Class of 2005 awarded her the Sacks-Freund Teaching Award.

Minow, 59, has written numerous books, including “In Brown’s Wake: Legacies of America’s Educational Landmark” (2010) and “Making All the Difference: Inclusion, Exclusion, and American Law” (1990). She is the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law.

Q: You come from a very illustrious and accomplished family. Tell me a little about your life growing up.

A: My grandparents are immigrants, didn’t graduate from middle school. So we grew up very conscious that we had a lot of privilege compared to what their lives were like. My dad was in the federal government, in the Kennedy administration, and that was a formative experience for everyone in the family. When I got to college and said that I wanted to write a history thesis about the 1950s, they said, “That’s not history.” I said, “It is for me!” So clearly, it affected my worldview.

My mother was very involved in civic activity and at some point, when I joined this faculty, I realized I had tried to combine my parents’ careers. I was a lawyer, but I worked on issues having to do with children and child abuse, which my mother had done. I have two wonderful sisters, neither who planned to be a lawyer. My younger sister’s career launched as a librarian, but in a way, she joined the family business. She is a lawyer for libraries and it’s a very different world today given the digital revolution. My older sister has been a lawyer, but she’s also been a film critic and a founder of the modern corporate governance movement. They’re both very amazing and very independent people who’ve invented their own careers.

Q: You are the middle sister?

A: Yes. We dressed alike, all of those things that people did back in the ’50s and ’60s. I think the fact that I’m a middle child has influenced my style in the world. I am a peacemaker, I am a bridge builder, I am a consensus person.

Q: Your older sister Nell said you girls often formed little clubs and that she was always the president.

A: Always, always. It’s very true. She was once interviewed about how did she get interested in management and she said, “When my younger sister was born.”

Q: How did you and your family get to be such movie buffs?

A: My dad, during World War II, enlisted at the age of 17, was in India and was involved in wiring India for telecommunications. He came back convinced that communications technology was the future. He then studied communications in college and, at some point, worked for Encyclopedia Britannica, which gave him access to 16mm films that he would bring home. So long before video, we had movie nights. I’m sure that’s some of it. Also, as a founder of modern public television, he used to sit us down in front of shows and ask us to be critics and tell him what we thought. So it was part of the family vocabulary to consider — what do we think of these things?

Q: So he encouraged you to be opinionated, but got some useful feedback too.

A: Absolutely. Family dinners were always about current affairs. He would put problems on the table, my mother would put problems on the table, and we would discuss them. We were expected to have views.

Q: Certainly that was not what was going on in everyone’s household in that era.

A: I have now come to understand that. I did not know that at the time. When I got to law school, my roommate said to me, “You really think you’re entitled to have a view on everything, don’t you?” It was the first time anyone ever pointed out that was unusual.

Q: During your formative years, what really interested you?

A: I am so very much affected by being a child of the ’60s. I grew up in a tumultuous time — the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement. [Last] year being the [50th] anniversary of JFK’s death brought back to mind how much a part of my childhood [were] the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Medgar Evers. That was a very big part of my life. I wrote poems about it; it was a thing I thought about. So I don’t know if I was thinking in career terms or not, but my life was going to have to deal with issues of social injustice and that’s what my life was going to be.

Q: You attended Harvard Graduate School of Education before heading to Yale Law School. What drew you to the law and specifically to human rights, family law, and education law?

A: In high school I had worked on social service activities and school reform seemed to me a very important area, to remedy the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. So it wasn’t a big leap to then think about studying social policy. I actually was torn between three options for graduate school. I didn’t want to go to law school. I thought about philosophy and public policy and education — applied to three programs, admitted to all of them, I thought I’d do all of them. I started with the Education School. It was the second year of busing in Boston. I worked for the master for the Delaware desegregation case; I worked on several other big projects. I became the project director for an assessment of the second year of Boston busing and it was pretty clear to me that I needed to have a law degree if I really wanted to participate in those issues.

Q: Do you still feel connected to school reform and that part of your life?

A: Absolutely. My most recent book, “In Brown’s Wake,” is about the legacies of Brown v. Board of Education outside of the context of school desegregation, although I do talk about that. Besides exploring what worked and did not work in efforts to produce racial desegregation, the book pursues repercussions of that struggle for students with disabilities, gender equality, treatment of religious and ethnic differences, school reform, and the dream of a “common school,” and argues that Brown has had more influence on racial equality outside of schools and more influence on other kinds of equality movements inside of schools. So yes, very much involved in those issues. It was a violent and controversial period in Boston with protests. I had been brought up to think you have to be part of the issues of the day and I was.
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Q: How did clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Judge David Bazelon of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia influence your thinking?

A: I was really so privileged to work for two icons of judicial work. Judge Bazelon was the chief judge of the court of appeals in Washington. [He was] well-known to me at Yale because his approach to judging was very much revered by people at Yale — a very interdisciplinary approach, bringing into the law psychology, sociology, and so forth. Working for him was like a seminar every day. He’d bring in people from other fields. I later learned how very unusual that was.

Q: That wasn’t the norm?

A: Not the norm. And another unusual part of working for him was speechwriting — that was as important as working on the cases and that opened up for me many cross-disciplinary activities. I became immersed, because of that, in issues of engineering and safety. The actual judicial work was also very fascinating, issues of health and safety, as well as criminal justice, which I find myself returning to at this point in my career.

Working for Justice Thurgood Marshall was a dream. He was a hero during my whole childhood and the work at the court is so unique and so intense. It’s a time I treasure and will always remember. I certainly learned from him to pick your battles. He had a very different approach than Judge Bazelon, who would dissent in any case and make a fight over everything and that’s kind of the way I had been brought up. Justice Marshall instead would say, “No, you have to husband your strength and pick your battles.” And that’s something that’s become a watchword in my life.

Second thing, he was a proceduralist. He really was a lawyer’s lawyer because if you couldn’t win on the substance, you could sometimes win on the procedure. And I ended up teaching procedure, writing a book about procedure. I really learned from him a lot about the significance of that. I remember once saying to him, “This person had missed a deadline, but this case is so compelling.” And he said to me very seriously, “If we change the rules, they won’t be there tomorrow when we need them.” That obviously affected me deeply and the kind of professional focus I brought to my own work. He told stories that were fantastic and his ability to identify with every person in a story is something I revere and continue to think about.

It was just very, very intense. Every week, you’d hear the squeak of a [cart’s] wheel coming down the hallway . . . carrying the petitions for certiorari, and coming on my desk would be 30 of them and each one would be a new area of law I’d never heard of and I was responsible for telling my justice what was in this case and should they review it. It was a heady experience, absolutely.

Q: Starting out, where did you envision your career would take you?

A: I thought I would go work in the Justice Department. I interviewed there and was given a job and it looked like that was what I was going to do. And then, frankly, there was an election — the Reagan election — and the Senate changed [in] 1980. I thought, “This is going to be a time I’m not so sure I want to be in the Justice Department.” People had already been exploring with me, “Did I want to teach?” And I guess at that point, it seemed to me, “Well, I’ll do that for a couple of years.” That’s genuinely what I thought: I’ll do that for a couple of years and then I’ll come back to Washington.

Q: Did you ever have doubts back then about your ability to distinguish yourself in the field?

A: I really didn’t think about gender until I was in law school. And then, it was just very palpable that this was a very male institution. I was at Yale, and in criminal law class discussions of rape were astonishingly insensitive, or so it seemed to me. But I don’t think I had self-doubt particularly related to being a woman. My question about coming here was, “Would I be comfortable at Harvard Law School?” I was very lucky. I had invitations to join the faculties at Yale and at Harvard and at Stanford and Michigan, a lot of schools. Harvard was the place that intrigued me the most, but it had a reputation for not being a good place for women. I sat with Walter Dellinger, later the solicitor general of the United States, [and said] “Harvard has had a series of women come teach on the faculty and they’ve all left.” There was one tenured woman on the faculty when I joined. He said, “That’s not a reason not to go if that’s the place you want to go.” Abe Chayes was on the faculty here — he was one of the people who recruited me — and I raised the question with him and he said, “You’re tough as nails.” And I thought, “I’m not tough as nails, but I’d like to be tough as nails.” So it was definitely on my mind that this was not a place that was known to be hospitable to women and I was concerned about that.

Q: What convinced you to come here?

A: The faculty were so exciting and the students I met — just the intellectual vibrancy of the place. There had been a big debate over the work of Roberto Unger, Mort Horwitz, and Duncan Kennedy; Gary Bellow had launched clinical education; [many of] the articles I was reading . . . were written by people at Harvard Law School. And when I came and interviewed with people . . . [I had] the most interesting discussions.

Q: Did you ever question — or did others question — your decision to focus on what some call the “soft law” subjects?

A: I did wonder. I wanted to teach subjects that dealt with education and children and schools and it crossed my mind, this is kind of stereotypic. And then I thought, but if I don’t do what I want to do, that’s being bound by stereotypes as well. This is what I want to do. I did want to teach procedure, which is kind of at the core of the legal curriculum and not exactly a soft subject. It’s in many people’s views the most arcane and nonintuitive subject in the first year. The work that I had at the Supreme Court convinced me it was absolutely crucial, so I felt like I was doing a little bit of both.

Q: What do you consider your most important work as a scholar over the past 30 or so years?

A: In many ways the first thing you write is the culmination of everything you’ve thought until that time. The first book [“Making All the Difference: Inclusion, Exclusion, and American Law”] was that. It was my effort to address difference in the law — gender, race, disability, religion — and my work has continued in that vein. It integrated my graduate studies and my work at the court, as well as my research. I had a goal when I joined this faculty to learn as much in my first three years on the faculty as I had in law school because I felt it was an electrifying experience in law school. And I did. So when I wrote that book, I was trying to summarize the many different intellectual traditions that I had encountered, including things I had never heard of in law school: structuralism, deconstruction, hermeneutics, the interpretive turn in history. I’d never heard of any of those things. They were all tools that helped me address the issues of subordination in the law. I found I was becoming more theoretical not because I wanted to write about theory, but because the issues of equality and inequality were not amenable to the tools that we had previously in the law.

Later, I became very involved in issues of trying to teach human rights and teach prevention of genocide and mass violence with a fabulous group that’s based here in Boston called Facing History and Ourselves, which is a global nonprofit that prepares teachers to help students think about human rights and prevent group conflict. That led to the next book, “Between Vengeance and Forgiveness,” which grew directly out of my collaborations with that organization. I organized a conference for them and everybody involved in the conference said, “Somebody should write about this” and we looked around and I guess it was me. So I wrote that book. That was a departure because I wasn’t talking about domestic equality issues but in many ways it was absolutely continuous because the treatment of a group of people as objects of hatred at the core of genocide is the sad, ultimate extension of the subordination issues that had preoccupied me previously.

Two notable phone calls after I published the book then changed my work. One was from Madame [Sadako] Ogata, who was the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, who said, “I’m reading your book. I think you can help me.” I said, “I know nothing about refugees.” She repeated, “I’m reading your book. I think you can help me!” And how could I not? So I spent the next five years of my life working with her and developing a project called Imagine Coexistence and trying to address post-conflict situations.

The other call was from Justice Richard Goldstone of the South African constitutional court. I’d never met him, but he wrote the preface to the book. He said, “Your book suggests to me that you should join me in the international commission on Kosovo that Sweden is creating.” And I said, “I know nothing about Kosovo. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He said, “No, I think you should do this.” I said, “And I’m teaching … ” He said, “I’m on the court and I’m taking a leave of absence from the court to do this!” I said, “OK.” That was a big chapter of my life. It continues. For example, I’m co-editing a book about the first global prosecutor — the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, charged with enforcing globally the kinds of norms we examined in the work in Kosovo.

Martha Minow - Gazette low-res

Credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff PhotographerMinow, shown in her office, is working on a book at the intersection of law and forgiveness.

Q: What are some of the most important things you’ve learned?

A: My parents are my biggest teachers and my mother taught me you can’t control what life does to you but you can control how you respond to it. I think about that every day. My parents are still my greatest advisers. I talk to them every day. They’re remarkable human beings.

Q: Tell me about some of the mistakes along the way.

A: Oh, many, many mistakes. My sister Nell is a big source of inspiration on this. She says, “If you’re not failing some of the time, then you’re not risking enough.” So I’ve written things that have bombed, [received] negative reviews, [been] rejected from peer-reviewed journals. I started a project here at Harvard that got some funding that went nowhere and then people said, “We told you it wasn’t going to go anywhere.” I’ve had things that haven’t succeeded. I don’t beat myself up about any of those. I’m still very preoccupied with the issues of injustice and the justice gap and the gap between the haves and have-nots. We’re worse now than we were 20 years ago and that very much preoccupies me. Racial injustice [is] still an issue. I’m pretty staggered that we are still struggling with many of the same issues that motivated me.

Q: How have you changed and how has Harvard Law School changed since you first joined the faculty in 1981?

A: I think it’s a very continuous place in some ways but a very, very different one in others. We just this fall had Celebration 60, marking the 60th year of the admission of women. I joined the faculty 33 years ago … [which is] still in recent memory, and now it’s a very different experience: Just about 50 percent women students, not enough women on the faculty, but many more than when I joined. But more significantly, I think the School is more diverse intellectually. There are many more disciplinary approaches to law. History of philosophy, psychology, political science, linguistics, biology. That’s made it an even more exciting place intellectually.

And it’s more global. It’s always been global in some respects, but the student body is much more international and the faculty is more international and my own teaching is a reflection of this. There I was, teaching a very domestic subject — how the federal courts process works — but case after case involved parties from around the world, issues of law and procedure from other places, facts that occurred outside. In terms of pedagogy, we have some lecture classes, but most of our teaching is much more question-and-answer based. But the idea that the professor has an answer and will not tell you what it is is very unusual here and it used to be much more typical. Now we have team projects and professors explaining here’s why we’re doing what we’re doing while asking questions. When I started here, there was a small clinical program giving students the opportunity to represent low-income clients and now we have 27 clinics. The Law School has a justice mission and that’s something that makes me very proud and something I know the students feel very passionately about.

Q: What are students today like and how are they similar or dissimilar from when you first started teaching?

A: The students are spectacular. I’m blown away regularly by what they know, how hard they work, the kinds of aspirations they have, their willingness to collaborate. I have many more students from other parts of the world than I used to. I just finished teaching constitutional law and to have in the class someone who’s an expert in the European Union and someone who clerked at the Israel Supreme Court, someone whose first law degree is from China and someone who practiced law in Australia — it enriches the class; it’s really quite terrific.

The students now are generous, collaborative. They share notes with each other. I regularly ask students what has surprised them about Harvard Law School and almost always the response is how nice everybody is. I think the degree to which the students care about the world is very impressive to me. They are not just concerned about themselves. And there’s a current mood of entrepreneurship and “let’s create our own things”that’s very palpable and very impressive and I’ve tried to support it as dean. Even those that we can’t give support for financially, we give support intellectually and connect them with people outside the School. … all that is increasing a sense of we are not just on planet Law School, we’re on planet Earth and we’re part of a larger project.

Q: If you were trying to excite a student about working in human rights or family law, what would you say to them?

A: I guess I’d put the question a little differently. We’ve seen a noticeable drop in the numbers of talented students applying to law school, period. Some of that is an understandable response to the 2008 financial crisis and the difficulties that large law firms have had responding to that crisis, though most of them have bounced back. I think there’s now an overcorrection. I think there are reasons to remind talented young people why a life in the law is meaningful and opens up many, many doors. About half of our graduates over the course of their career do things other than practice law. They run for public office; they run nonprofit organizations; they are very involved in business, private equity, venture capital; major CEOs are graduates of our School, mayors, presidents, and so forth. That’s maybe a little bit atypical for all law schools, but for the top law schools, that is not atypical. I would hope that young talented people who have an interest in a meaningful life and career would consider law school.

Q: You are regarded as an inspirational and popular teacher. What do you attribute that to?

A: It’s such a privilege to teach. It’s the best part of my day. The great secret that’s not such a secret is the way to continue to learn your whole life is to teach. It’s a bonus to hear that people like my classes. I find the ideas and the questions absolutely captivating and renewing. I learn something new every day. I believe that I learn as much or more from my students than they learn from me and I think that’s the secret to being a good teacher. I don’t lecture. I do structure classes with questions that I think are very real questions. I also tend to use a variety of teaching methods that range from simulating judicial argument or senate debates to standing back and, as a class, trying to come up with a conceptual framework to organize a mass of material that’s incoherent … I taught a reading group last year that was on the law and forgiveness, which is a subject I’m trying to write a book about. I will be drawing on the discussions that we had there for years to come, it was so rich and meaningful.

Q: What kind of legacy do you hope to leave at Harvard Law School?

A: I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Adlai Stevenson, who ran for public office, ran for president, even knowing that he would lose. He was running against [Dwight] Eisenhower, who was described as familiar as the bottle of ketchup on the kitchen table and was beloved so much he was recruited by the Democrats as well as the Republicans to run for president. So why did Adlai Stevenson run? He ran because he thought that there were some questions that should be on the table. And I think that there should be some questions on the table that people should be debating and I hope that one of my legacies is to frame the questions in a way that makes them engaging and enduring and makes it possible to imagine third ways. If there’s something my work is known for it’s that I tend to take things that are framed as binaries, as an either/or, and say, “Actually, there’s a third way.” To think about third ways is not to say the question is unimportant, but it’s to imagine that there might be problems that we create in the way we frame the issue. If we frame it differently, we might find new solutions. That’s something that I hope has a legacy. If it’s not my particular answers, it’s the search for them. And the idea that you can use law to make a difference in the world and to tackle injustice. It’s always struck me as curious that we call them law schools and not justice schools. It’s that disjunction I guess I’m trying to push at: Where’s the justice part?

Q: What’s next for you and what do you see yourself doing in 10 years?

A: I’m writing a book about law and forgiveness. Should legal institutions encourage people to forgive wrongdoers, whether in criminal, financial, or other contexts — domestically, internationally? When is this productive for human relationships? When does it jeopardize deterrence and fairness? When might legal involvement even jeopardize the gifts of apology, voluntarily given, and forgiveness, willingly chosen? It’s surprising to me that I’m writing about that. I can see where it comes from in my prior work, but if you had asked me 20 years ago, are you going to be working on law and forgiveness, I would not have known that. So I hope I’m going to be working on things I can’t quite foresee.

This interview was originally published in the Harvard Gazette on April 22, 2014

It was edited by the publication for length and clarity.