Reflecting on 200 Years: A Q&A with Former Dean Harold Hongju Koh

Harold Hongju Koh reflects on the School's history, his teaching, and some of the biggest challenges he believes lawyers are facing today.
Harold Koh stands at a podium smiling with his shirtsleeves rolled up
Sterling Professor of International Law Harold Hongju Koh

Harold Hongju Koh served as dean of Yale Law School from 2004 to 2009 before being appointed as the 22nd Legal Adviser of the U.S. Department of State. He previously served from 1998 to 2001 as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. He is one of the country’s leading experts in public and private international law, national security law, and human rights. 

The recipient of 18 honorary degrees and dozens of human rights awards, and author or co-author of nine books and many articles, he began teaching at Yale in 1985 and is currently Sterling Professor of International Law. During his tenure as dean, he focused on making Yale a global law school, strengthening ties with the legal profession, committing to public service, and renewing the faculty, several dozen of whom were appointed on his watch.

In honor of Yale Law School’s 200th anniversary, Koh reflected on its history, his teaching, and some of the biggest challenges he believes lawyers are facing today.

branding for bicentennial

Yale Law School at 200

Learn more about the history of Yale Law School on our Bicentennial website.

As we reflect on the storied 200-year history of this institution, are there certain themes or milestones that stand out to you about Yale Law School? 

Yale is the greatest law school in the world, so I think if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But on the other hand, when you’re in an environment where things are changing so rapidly in so many different ways, you have to change to stay the same. I think one of the great themes is how brilliantly Yale Law School, as an institution and through its leadership and faculty, has adapted to the changing times. 

When I officially started as dean in 2004, I led with the principles of globalization, closer ties to the profession, public service, and renewal. First, I knew we had to focus on globalization. In the 1880s, the Law School leadership and faculty had consciously decided that we were not going to just be a Connecticut law school, but rather a national law school, dedicated to attracting students from all over who would focus on issues that would allow them to practice and become influential anywhere in the country. Since Yale had become the leading national law school, it occurred to me that we had to do the same in terms of making Yale a global law school. There had to be global elements in every aspect of our curriculum, which meant we needed to expand our vision across the curriculum. This included making all the faculty and clinics not just national but also global in their focus. Two decades later, this transition seems to have occurred. 

Harold Koh stands at the front of a classroom lecturing at a desk with his shirtsleeves rolled up

Koh is one of the country's leading experts in international law, national security law, and human rights.

Second, it seemed to me that if the world was going to be changing so fast, we had to better understand what the legal profession was doing and where it was going. There was a view of some that we could teach students through timeless theories and they would just go out and adapt to the worlds in which they found themselves, but it seemed to me that was not going far enough. If you’re going to have artificial intelligence in the law, the students should know what artificial intelligence involves. If we have cyber currency, we have to understand what cyber currency is. This meant getting closer to the concerns of the profession, as it is practicing law at the cutting edge. 

A third priority was promoting public service and speaking up for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, which had been my own personal background. Yale’s president Kingman Brewster once said, “I didn’t become president of Yale to preside over a finishing school on Long Island Sound.” The world’s greatest law school must promote more than the private interest. The second and third priorities — emphasizing the profession and public service — have evolved naturally into our current dean’s focus on fostering leadership.

Finally, I had to consider renewal, which is a recurring generational challenge. I saw a need to hire more diverse faculty, especially the rising generation of teachers who now lead our school, and to solve our long-term space needs by securing Baker Hall, only steps away from the Sterling Law Buildings. We ran an aggressive capital campaign so that we would have the long-term resources we would need, and to allow financial aid and public service fellowships for all who need it, again an effort that flourished under subsequent deans. 

These four leading principles have allowed for Yale to continue exactly as it is, the best law school in the world. Now consider what would happen if each of the four things hadn’t happened. If we didn’t globalize, we’d become provincial. If we didn’t get closer to the profession, we’d become too ivory tower. If we didn’t focus on public service, we would feel too mercenary. If we didn’t renew, we would become stale and less inclusive than the times would demand. 

How do you think the Law School was able to go from being a tiny place that at several points in our history almost didn’t survive to the best law school in the world that has shaped legal education? 

There are the timeless things, and there are the fortuitous things. The timeless things are our values, three of them in particular: individual excellence, collective excellence driven by shared values, and a community of commitment. The fortuities, I think, are driven by the fact that human beings have lifetimes and thus there are opportunities that come only once a generation. Yale Law School, in my lifetime, has had four big generational moments.

One was the ’60s, when Eugene Rostow ’37 became dean. Many of the faculty stalwarts who had made the School great suddenly retired, and he had the opportunity to make 18 appointments. One day he said to the younger faculty he appointed, “My flag flies on you,” which means, “It’s up to you. If you are who I think you are, we’ll be a great school. If not, we will have missed this opportunity.” The faculty he appointed, who included such giants as Guido Calabresi ’58, Alex Bickel, Charles Black ’43, Boris Bittker ’41, Ellen Peters ’54, Tom Emerson ’31, and many others, established Yale Law as the leading intellectual law school.

Harold Koh talks on the phone with students smiling in the background

Koh with students in the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic working on a Haitian refugee case in 1992.

The next period came in the late ’70s, early ’80s, when there was a lot of unrest at law schools nationwide. There was the rise of the critical legal studies movement, and what they called “the purge,” where a lot of the younger, untenured faculty were denied tenure. Faculty who had been appointed by Rostow thought the School needed to have younger people teaching, so starting in the early ’70s they hired young, tenured professors who were the rising stars at rival schools. That era brought to the School new giants like Bruce Ackerman ’67, Owen Fiss, Bo Burt ’64, Jerry Mashaw, Michael Reisman ’64 LLM, ’65 JSD, Mirjan Damaska, and others who built the faculty I was honored to join in 1985.

Meanwhile, the University was undergoing a financial crisis. The buildings were collapsing. There were constant labor struggles. Then the third generational moment came when Guido Calabresi became dean in 1985. In many respects, the school had lost its morale, but Guido was like the Music Man, and the Music Man always believes there’s a band. Guido believed there was a timeless and unique Yale Law School, and if you bought into that vision, you could make it happen. And he did, followed by Tony Kronman, who brought to the faculty leading figures like Carol Rose, Drew Days ’66, John Langbein, Bob Ellickson ’66, Alan Schwartz ’64, and Bob Gordon, as well as younger faculty like Akhil Amar ’84, Stephen Carter ’79, Paul Kahn ’80, Kate Stith, Roberta Romano ’80, and myself. And he launched the financial campaign that renewed us, and he and Tony worked together to restore our remarkable home. 

When I became dean in 2004, a fourth “moment of renewal” began, which continues today through the deanship of Dean Gerken, with more exciting faculty, the leading clinical program, a second law school building just next door, and an even more diverse, equal, inclusive, and public-spirited community. I’ve been here during five decades, and the experience never loses its wonder.

Guido Calabresi says that behind every door at Yale Law School, there’s an idea that changed the field. What are your thoughts on that statement? 

After Guido had been appointed dean, he was trying to recruit me to come here — with no office furniture, a reduced salary, and a school that was literally in the middle of a labor strike. But instead of focusing on any of those things, he said to me, “Harold, what’s your idea?” I told him it was to get a job here, and he said, “Oh, no, no, no.” He said if you walk down the hallway of Yale Law School, you see a name on every door that represents an idea that this person has put into the legal discourse, and it’s their idea that defines them. He told me that I had to bring my own distinctive ideas to the world of ideas: ideas that I had defined and that would come to define me.

This really stuck with me. As a Red Sox fan, my hero was Ted Williams, who was the greatest hitter of all time. One day when I was small, my father and I were watching Ted being interviewed after he got five hits and they asked him, “Why are you so good?” He said, “I never swing unless it’s in the strike zone.” My father said, “That guy is a genius. He knows exactly what he’s good at. You have to decide for yourself on your idea, your calling, your reason for being on Earth — and just focus on that. If an opportunity presents itself that’s in that ‘strike zone,’ you swing with all your might; if not, you stay away.” That is a principle of self-identification and triage that can define an academic career. So at Yale, I began to focus on two ideas: transnational legal process and the National Security Constitution. Over the decades those ideas have helped to build what some now call the “New New Haven School of International Law.”

Harold Koh with the Boston Red Sox World Series trophy

Koh, an ardent Red Sox fan, hosted a visit in 2004 with representatives from the World Series championship team. Sitting at Koh's desk to the left of the trophy is Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis.

How is Yale Law School unique in its approach to international law?

In international law, we had the New Haven School of International Law, led by Myres McDougal ’31 JSD and Michael Reisman, which emphasized the need to promote world public order with dignity through humane processes. We have now moved it forward with me, Oona Hathaway ’97, and many other faculty and students/alumni on the academic side, and Mike Wishnie ’93 and Claudia Flores on the clinical side. It is really a transnational legal process school. This March, we’re going to have a conference on the 50th anniversary of the Yale Journal of International Law. But it’s really a celebration of the New Haven Schools of International Law. There have been and there will be other American schools of international law — a Harvard/Chicago “rationalist/sovereigntist” School, a Princeton School of international law and relations, an NYU school of global administrative law, critical and third world approaches — but through our teaching, our scholarship, and our alumni in both the academy and the policy world, the New Haven Schools have remained the dominant approach to international law in America. 

I love the painting in the Vatican, “The School of Athens,” which is Raphael’s depiction of the discourse between Socrates and Aristotle. Not one but two schools are shown. There’s the School of Athens, which is a philosophical school, but it’s being depicted by an artist of the High Renaissance school of painting. In the same way, we have multiple intellectual schools here at Yale. In addition to the international law school, we have a Yale school of procedure, which teaches civil procedure, criminal procedure, and administrative procedure holistically, and argues that the cross-cutting idea, due process, is in the eye of the beholder. There are two ways to focus on how the government acts on people. One is from the perspective of the government, which too often treats the people as obstacles, or objects to be acted upon. And the other perspective is from the point of view of the human rights of the persons being acted upon.  

The question is, which perspective will we teach going forward? There’s a famous story that at Harvard Law School there was a course called creditors’ rights. But at Yale, the same course was called debtors’ estates. From which perspective should we look at this legal subject?

Harold Koh seated at a table with other lawyers at the International Court of Justice

Koh (center) with members of the delegation from Ukraine at the International Court of Justice in the Hague in September 2023. Koh argued on behalf of Ukraine in its suit against Russia for legal violations stemming from its 2022 invasion.

In your career as a law professor, how have you seen pedagogy evolve over time? How has your view of working with new generations of students evolved over time? 

Returning to full-time teaching after being dean has been one of the great joys of my life. I’m old school in that there is an irreducible minimum of law that my students have to know and know it cold. In my first-term procedure class, we drill them. They go from 0 to 60 mph in 14 weeks, so they need to learn all the basic rules and doctrines, and fast. Learning these rules and getting this big picture instills in them a certain sense of confidence. We’re the best school in the country, and our students should be and are the best students in the country. In that sense, a lot really hasn’t changed. But once we instill this primer on what the rules are, we start asking the harder normative questions at which Yale Law School excels: what should the rules be? If you could change the status quo, how would you change it, and toward what end? 

My number one innovation since I returned to full-time teaching in 2013 has been making the time to get to know each and every one of my students at the beginning of the year. My daughter recommended that I meet with everyone for 20 to 30 minutes one-on-one. When I told her “I have 137 students,” she asked, “Well, what are you doing that’s more important?” Now during the first three weeks of classes, I meet with students one-on-one five days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. It’s amazing what you learn about their past, and their hopes and dreams for the future, and the students come to feel that I care about them individually, as people, and want to help them achieve their life’s aspirations.


What do you think Yale Law School will look like another 100 years from now? Where do you see the law school moving into the future? 

We have to be on the front end of technological change, which poses both threat and opportunity. Everything’s changing. Technology is changing; the environment is changing; the world is shrinking. Individuals are greatly empowered. But when you have the 20 leading artificial intelligence people saying that AI has the potential to change the way the whole world works for the worse, we have to think very seriously about it. When they programmed self-driving cars, they consciously valued the lives of the passengers in the car more than they valued the lives of the people on the street. So that if the self-driving car careens out of control, the self-driving mechanism maximizes protection of the people who own the car or are in the car over pedestrians. If someone’s going to die in an accident, it’ll be somebody that they hit. Now, that’s a God-like decision — that your life is worth more than mine — being made by artificial intelligence. Should law regulate that decision, and how?

Secondly, there are a set of threats that are now becoming graphically unveiled in terms of global pandemics and climate change, which is leading to unbelievable natural disasters. There’s a sense that we used to have of stability in the face of threat, but that’s gone. I’ll give you just one example: there’s something called the low-lying universities, LLU. When you think about it, every great university in the world is at sea level, including Yale, which means that if the temperature rises and the ice cap melts and the water level rises by 10 meters, all of Yale will be underwater. And you cannot recover that infrastructure loss. And every other great university is at sea level too. Every country in the world built their great university at sea level. So we’re talking trillions and trillions of dollars and centuries of human effort potentially lost. Yet these same universities have within them the people — the present and future knowledge and the present and future leaders — who can prevent this from happening and set the stage for the next set of intellectual challenges. It’s the same old story: to stay the same, we’ll have to change. So we can’t just rest on our laurels; we will just have to do a better job of it over our next 200 years.