Professor Jim Silk Awarded DeVane Medal for Excellence as a Teacher and Scholar

Jim Silk teaching outside with three students
Professor Jim Silk in the Law School Courtyard with students.

James J. Silk ’89, the Binger Clinical Professor of Human Rights at Yale Law School, was awarded the William C. Clyde DeVane Medal in April by the University’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

The DeVane Medals, Yale’s oldest teaching award, are given annually to recognize “members of the faculty who have distinguished themselves as teachers of undergraduates in Yale College and as scholars in their fields,” according to the Yale Phi Beta Kappa website.

Silk received one of two DeVane awards presented at the ceremony. One recipient is an active member of the faculty selected by Yale College seniors in the chapter; the other recipient is a retired member of the Yale College faculty selected by the graduates of the chapter. This year’s second DeVane award was given to Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Sumitomo Professor of Japanese Studies William W. Kelly.

In addition to his Law School teaching, Silk founded and directs the Multidisciplinary Academic Program in Human Rights Studies, based at the Schell Center for International Human Rights, which gives Yale undergraduates the opportunity to explore human rights from an interdisciplinary perspective.

“I have cherished teaching the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at the Law School for 24 years, and it has been the very heart of my career,” Silk said. “But starting the undergraduate Human Rights Program and teaching its capstone seminar every fall has been a labor of love.”

Jim Silk speaking at the 2024 Bernstein Symposium
Professor Jim Silk speaking at this year’s Bernstein Symposium.

The three Yale College seniors who presented the award to Silk spoke poignantly about his legacy, dedication to undergraduate learning, and impact.

Kanyinsola Anifowoshe ’24 YC said, “Jim’s depth of care for students — as thinkers, as advocates, and most of all, as people committed to making the world a more just place — has inspired us and indelibly shaped our academic and professional journeys.”

Forrest LaPrade ’24 YC spoke of visiting Silk for office hours to discuss his paper; a 30-minute meeting became a three-hour conversation about topics including the beauty of the midwestern screened porch, favorite encounters with deer, the advantages of itinerancy in one’s 20s, the legacy of U.S. Route 66, how to deal with regret, the poetry of Donald Hall, and the value of futile actions, according to LaPrade.

“My experience is not unique,” LaPrade said. “Students rave about Jim’s office hours and continually email him hoping to meet. The generosity and respect with which Jim gives his time and spirit have altered the course of many of his students’ lives, including mine.”

Eliza Kravitz ’24 YC said that Silk makes it clear how much he values his relationships with his undergraduate students. “Jim has inspired generations of Yale College students to join varied human rights causes around the world, and he has helped us to make those aspirations possible through his endless generosity with his time.” 

Silk said, “Being nominated for this award by Eliza, Forrest, and Kanyinsola was especially touching and affirming because this year’s seniors so beautifully embodied the ideal learning community, the commitment to collaborative learning, the critical, but not cynical, study of human rights that we hoped to build when we started the program in 2014.”  

At the Law School, Silk is a co-director of the Law School’s Orville H. Schell Jr. Center for International Human Rights and led the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic from 1999 to 2023. In 2018, Silk was awarded the M. Shanara Gilbert Human Rights Award by the Society of American Law Teachers. In 2003, he received the YLW+ Faculty Excellence Award for his “involvement in student life, passion for teaching, and dedicated support of individual students both personally and professionally.” 

Silk received a B.A. in economics from the University of Michigan, an M.A. in the humanities from the University of Chicago, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. 

William Clyde DeVane, to whose memory the medal is dedicated, was the Dean of Yale College from 1938 to 1963, a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Senate, and national President of the United Chapters. The first DeVane award was presented in 1966.