Reflecting on 200 Years: A Q&A with Former Dean Robert C. Post

In honor of Yale Law School's bicentennial, Robert Post ’77 discusses its history, distinctness, and the major changes he made while dean.
Former Dean Robert C. Post during Dean's Reception
Yale Law School Sterling Professor of Law Robert C. Post

Robert C. Post ’77, a leading First Amendment and constitutional law scholar, served as dean of Yale Law School from 2009 to 2017. He worked closely with faculty, staff, students, and alumni to deepen the School’s commitment to scholarly excellence, bolster its academic reputation, and enhance the students’ educational experience. During his two terms as dean, Post hired 18 new faculty members, whose areas of expertise include tax law, health law, criminal law, and legal history. As dean, Post published three books, numerous academic articles, and delivered the Tanner Lectures at Harvard.

He championed an expansion of the School’s experiential learning opportunities and created new business simulation courses to provide students with hands-on training in business practice. He created the position of Deputy Dean for Experiential Education, oversaw the growth of new and innovative clinics, and provided an environment for students that enabled them to develop creative solutions to real-world problems.

While leading the School out of a financial crisis with a significantly reduced endowment and budget, Dean Post still managed to expand programs, centers, and initiatives through effective fundraising and careful management of the School’s finances. As part of this dedication to investing in the future, Post spearheaded a major initiative to bring back dormitory living to Yale Law School with the opening of Robert C. and Christina Baker Hall.

He currently teaches constitutional law at the Law School, where he was also once a student. In honor of Yale Law School’s 200th anniversary, Post reflected on its history, its distinctness, and the major changes he made while dean.

branding for bicentennial

Yale Law School at 200

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

When you reflect on the storied 200-year history of Yale Law School, what milestones or themes stand out to you?

At the outset of the 20th century, Yale Law School was merely a dot between two very large and very prestigious schools, Harvard and Columbia, which were both dominant in terms of size and legal pedagogy. The School began to acquire a distinctive voice in the second decade of the 20th century when it simultaneously featured the work of second-generation legal realists like Karl Llewellyn and that of legal theorists like Wesley Hohfeld. The Yale Law School came into its own, however, in the 1930s, when it became a seedbed for the New Deal and acquired a self-image that was distinct from both Harvard and Columbia.

At that time Yale fully embraced its own unique philosophy of education. It did not seek to compete with Harvard or Columbia in terms of size. It did not seek to turn out fungibly well-trained students who were all perfectly well-socialized professionals. It instead sought to encourage originality, to prize the eccentricity and idiosyncrasy that marked the unique talents of each student. Yale decided to remain small and close. It opted to create a community rather than a city. It chose to focus on the individual development of both faculty and students.

This focus was dramatically reinforced after World War II. The School introduced the small group, a great innovation in legal education. It did away with ordinary grades. It expanded into clinical and other forms of education. It strove to create forms of pedagogy that were cooperative rather than competitive.

Former Dean Robert C. Post addresses an audience at YLS

Post addresses incoming students during Convocation in 2013.

How did the School evolve into a leader in legal education?

I entered law school in the fall of 1974. I had to choose between Harvard and Yale. At that time there were no rankings to guide one’s decision. I asked myself whether I wanted to go to a school that was large and that would stamp me out in a regular pattern of excellent professionalism, or whether I wanted to attend a school that would be responsive to my individual interests and that would bring out the best in me. I opted for the latter. Yale had the reputation of embracing and encouraging the originality of its community. Yale students and faculty were free to think outside the box, but at the same time they were encouraged to think together in a constructive community of engagement. To me these are the key reasons why Yale rapidly became the leader in American education. They made Yale irresistibly attractive to the most exceptional faculty and students.

Somewhat surprisingly, Yale’s location in New Haven also turned out to be an advantage. Cambridge and Boston offer multifarious attractions. It is thus hard for members of the Harvard Law School to maintain a sharp commitment to the school itself. The same is true with regard to Columbia and New York. But New Haven offers a relatively threadbare environment that directs the attention of faculty and students inward toward the School. The upshot is that Yale enjoys an intellectual intensity and vibrance that is virtually unmatched by any other legal institution of learning.

What stands out to you when reflecting on the major legal ideas that have come out of Yale Law School?

I shall focus on what I know best, which is American public law. The constitutional law faculty at Yale Law School have been outstanding for decades. It is striking that Yale faculty are not primarily focused on getting the law right. At other schools, faculty ask: “How should this case be decided?” But at Yale, faculty tend instead to ask: “How can law structure social processes so that our institutions can best function?”

In the past, our public law faculty, from Alexander Bickel to Robert Burt, persistently stressed the ways in which public law acquires its values and content in conversation with the political world outside law. Contemporary faculty like Bruce Ackerman, Jack Balkin, Paul Kahn, or Reva Siegel study how legal meaning emerges from public opinion, general culture, and government institutions. The focus of their scholarship is not on ascertaining the uniquely correct outcome to cases, but instead on understanding the processes by which law comes into being. That is a focus unique to Yale.

Describe your varied experience with the Law School, having gone from a student to a professor and then dean.

I was quite alienated from law when I arrived here as a student. I had been a Ph.D. candidate in American civilization at Harvard, and I had grown unhappy with graduate school. My father’s career was in decline, and I saw law as a way to earn income and support my family. I was lucky enough to come under the tutelage of Owen Fiss. If I'm anything in this field, it is because Owen took me in hand, trained me, and offered me opportunities. Although I loved my teachers and my fellow students, I did not as a student find a vocation in law.

I clerked after graduation and then became a litigator. I loved this work. But it also was not a vocation. So I returned to academics and took a job at Berkeley. It took several years, but eventually I discovered a voice and vocation outside of Yale. When I came back to Yale in 2003, it turned out that my work and my perspective were highly compatible with the work of the other public law scholars on the faculty. It was exhilarating to join a community of like-minded scholars.

When I returned to Yale, I found it to be a truly faculty-governed place. The faculty took seriously the responsibility of directing the School. This is most unusual in legal academia, which, like other units in American universities, is increasingly governed by administrators. At YLS, faculty uniquely conceptualized themselves as the core of the School. This sense of community responsibility and participation was precious and rare. When I became dean in 2009, I sought to preserve it. I persistently made myself the smallest person in the room, signifying that my role was to serve and facilitate the faculty's ability to govern itself. Of course I was required to provide guidance, resources, strategy, and administration. But my primary responsibility was to sustain the community that made the School so distinctive. We were a community of faculty and students.

Former Dean Robert C. Post poses for a group photo

A tight-knit community makes Yale unique from other law schools, according to Post.

How did you carry the School through the Great Recession?

When I took office in 2009 the endowment had shrunk 35%. We are a school that is endowment driven; tuition supplies only about a third of our budget. Kate Stith, as the interim Dean before me, had done yeoman’s work making budget cuts. But I had to make many more, and I had to do it in a way that did not inflict pain or restraint on the faculty. This was because at the time there was great faculty unrest and several faculty were contemplating leaving the School. It was enormously important to give faculty confidence that the Great Recession had not undermined normal School routines. Fundraising was of course hugely difficult. It was not an easy time.

I therefore put great emphasis on moral leadership, on the articulation of a convincing and attractive School mission. I decided on a three-pronged approach. First, I enhanced our public commitment to scholarship through dedicated hiring, and also by creating the first-ever Ph.D. in Law program, which has so far placed 17 students in tenured or tenure-track academic jobs, including named chairs in top-tier law schools. Second, I strengthened the School’s clinical offerings by building on and expanding the excellent foundations laid by my predecessor, Dean Koh. I gave the clinical program representation in the senior reaches of the School’s administration, and I enhanced the participation rights of clinical professors in the School’s governance.

Third, it was evident to me that younger faculty often thought of themselves as policy entrepreneurs. They wanted to create centers that would fuse theoretical insights with policy initiatives. Although there is no school of public policy at Yale, it became apparent to me that the Law School could fill that gap. By amplifying such an initiative, we could position YLS as the complete package, where students could acquire theoretical understandings of law; where they could learn to practice law; and where they could undertake to conceptualize and implement the policies characteristic of the administrative state. This stance would enable us to recruit and retain the most innovative and effective candidates on the market. It would enable us to offer our students a full spectrum of possible relationships to the law. And it would give current faculty the sense that they were in a school that was at the cutting edge of legal academia. The excitement of that vision could make even the constraints of the Great Recession fade into the background.

Yale Law School is now a place with a very large number of centers, a very large percentage of them stemming from the time when I was dean. Our students can now move easily between understanding the law, practicing the law, and changing the law.

Why was it important for you, as dean, to add Baker Hall to the footprint of the Law School?

Ever since we cannibalized the last law dorm room in the Sterling Law Building in the early 21st century, alumni have bemoaned the loss of onsite living facilities. Although I thought dorm rooms were important, to me a far more pressing issue was that we had literally run out of room in the Sterling Law Building. We had no more offices for faculty. We lacked sufficient classroom space to sustain our curriculum. We were without the space to support needed policy centers. The School had no place to lodge the administrators necessary for a modern law school.

Robert C. Post speaking during Commencement

Something had to give. Dean Koh had secured the commitment of Yale University to give us the Swing Dorm space across Grove Street once Yale had finished refurbishing its colleges, which would be in about 2016. It was plain, however, that President Levin was rethinking that commitment. I pressed hard when President Salovey took office, and to his eternal credit Salovey kept true to the University’s earlier promises. I suspect that in doing so the newly installed Salovey was forced to resist the urgent pleas of university planners.

The addition of Baker Hall has given Yale Law School room to grow and develop. We now not only have dorm rooms to spare, but we have the classrooms required to expand our curriculum. We can easily hold conferences and meetings. We have space for the policy centers that have proliferated throughout the School. We have faculty offices available should we need them. We added more than 100,000 square feet of new space.

How has the Law School been able to train such versatile leaders and lawyers across all different spaces?

The short answer is because we prize and sustain the individual talents of each of our students. Every year as dean I would in the fall meet with first-year small groups to discuss their experience of the School. Typically I would tell them this story:

Harvard had once tried to recruit me and my wife, Professor Reva Siegel, to start an academic program to train students to become legal academics. We offered a seminar at Harvard entitled “Democratic Constitutionalism.” We had taught the seminar at Yale for several years. The subject of the course was the relationship between political mobilization and the emergence of constitutional law. The class sought to theorize the law/politics boundary.

This was not your ordinary law school course; it did not focus on black letter law or practice. The uniqueness of its subject matter revealed a striking difference between Harvard and Yale students. At Harvard, students tended to write papers that were far more professionally polished than students at Yale. Harvard students produced papers that were crisp, clean, and disciplined. They moved smoothly and convincingly from point to point. But the papers we received at Harvard typically asked questions that could be answered. They explored issues that were professionally competent but basically trivial.

Our Yale students, by contrast, tended to produce papers that were sloppier, bigger, and rougher. What was striking, however, is that they were papers about questions that were significant and important. We concluded that Harvard had successfully socialized its students into a professionalism that eclipsed their prior interests and priorities. Yale students had not been so professionalized; they had been able to retain a relationship to their prior selves, the selves that impelled them to go to law school in the first place.

This difference was not accidental. The whole point of Yale’s educational philosophy is to take our students as we find them and to speak to them each uniquely. We deemphasize competition to give each student the space to discover what truly interests them. The result, which was palpable in our seminar, was that Yale students tended to produce papers that were uncontrolled precisely because they were more meaningful. Yale students were, like Jacob in the Old Testament, wrestling with angels. They were not solving merely technical professional problems. In the end, I should say, Reva and I decided not to go to Harvard, because we saw that to produce first-rate academics we would have to desocialize Harvard students from the desiccated professionalism that had been inflicted on them.

My first encounter with Yale’s unique educational philosophy occurred during the very first faculty meeting I ever attended at Yale. The faculty was seriously discussing the question of whether procedure professors were teaching too many units during the first semester. I was impressed that faculty were fighting for the chance to increase, rather than decrease, their teaching load. This was a new phenomenon to me. But what struck me most was that during the discussion, Guido Calabresi stood up and said, "The great value of this is a school that you can have three different classes on torts taught in the same semester, and they won’t read a single case in common.” I remember thinking to myself: "I am not in Kansas anymore.” Yale is a school that actively prizes the unique relationship each individual can form with the law, whether that individual is a student or a member of the faculty.

In their first semester, students at Yale Law School are taught by four different professors who likely have four completely different concepts of the nature of law, the questions that should be asked of law, the methods by which law should be studied, the role of law in society, and so on. This means that by the end of their first semester, each YLS student will have internalized at least four different understandings of law.

Think about what that means. It suggests that the chance that any student might be able to forge a meaningful and unalienated relationship between herself and law is dramatically increased. At other schools, where a uniform and excellent professionalism is force-fed to every student for an entire year, students either embrace that image of law or else likely endure an alienated relationship with law for the remainder of their careers. At Yale, we maximize the possibility that each student will create a meaningful relationship to a vision of law that is uniquely compatible with and appealing to them.

Robert C. Post poses for a photo with Guido Calabresi

Post, like Guido Calabresi (pictured), went from a student to a faculty member then dean.

When you consider the future of Yale Law School, what do you hope the School will continue to do?

I hope Yale will continue to prize eccentricity. I hope it will continue to honor the originality of its students. I hope it will not embrace a vision of education that is Harvard-lite. I don't think it will be easy to preserve our traditions. It is trying and testing to love the individuality of our students and our faculty. It is far easier to deploy standard professional metrics. It requires courage to stand out and forge our own path. There is also great risk. It is simply not true that behind every door there is a great idea. There are too many false positives. Yet I hope we never lose faith that in every student and in every faculty member we deem worthy of hiring, there lies the possibility of great, original, and unforeseeable ideas. That faith is what makes this School so special.