Fate brought Harold Hongju Koh to the Yale Law School deanship. He was six years old at the time.
The year was 1961, and Eugene V. Rostow — outspoken, energetic and controversial — was dean. During his tenure, Rostow doubled the Yale Law School faculty, transformed the curriculum and rocketed the school to first in the nation.
And he left Yale with one more legacy: Koh.
After South Korea’s April Revolution, Koh’s family decided to stay in America, where they had been living and thriving since the late 1940s. So the couple, along with their six children, went where most immigrants seeking jobs and asylum go: to the dean of Yale Law School. Rostow, evidently impressed, invited Hesung Chun Koh and Kwang Lim Koh to teach a joint course on East Asian law and society for three years.
In effect, Rostow had planted the seeds for today’s Yale Law School dean. Koh would grow up in the Elm City, and he would idolize his law school benefactor.
“The dean of Yale Law School was, in my eyes, someone who could change somebody’s life,” Koh says. “He certainly changed mine.”
It may seem like an overstatement, but in a sort of fate meets taxes and torts way, it is not. Much of what Koh says contains a similar mixture of grandeur and truth. And he intends it that way, whether he is speaking about Yale Law School or about the entire world.
This past month alone, Koh — soon to begin his third year as dean — drew both applause and heat for his strong stance against defamatory postings on an Internet forum, and in virtually the same breath, told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in Washington D.C. that President George W. Bush ’68 had lowered America’s stature in the world.
Whatever he does, Koh stands out, and he has for many years. Guido Calabresi, a former Law School dean and current Second Circuit Court of Appeals judge who knew Koh when he was growing up, remembers that Koh’s friends purchased a small wagon for him on the night of his middle school awards ceremony to carry home his memorabilia, “and, of course, Harold ended up winning so many prizes.”
That wagon is filling up — more rapidly, perhaps, than ever. Alongside middle school prizes, Koh has accumulated many other accolades: three years as Assistant Secretary of State of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor under President Clinton, a successful 1993 fight to the Supreme Court to free hundreds of Haitian refugees held in Guantanamo — the subject of a planned movie — and even a new “Harold Hongju Koh Bobblehead Doll” being sold by the Yale chapter of the American Constitution Society.
But lately, some students and faculty have said that Koh walks a line on which a man of his stature cannot balance without falling to one side: the line between dean and advocate. There is discussion among some conservative groups in the law school that Koh has had somewhat of a chilling effect on conservative thought on campus — or that he has actively made some effort to quiet it.
“My one misgiving about him is that he tends to wear his convictions on his sleeve,” said Peter Schuck, a longtime Yale Law School professor. “The Law School would be a stronger institution if there were more ideological diversity.”
Either way, earlier this year Koh began, in his words, to hit his “stride.” Around the baseball diamond, perhaps, as the Red Sox fan’s priorities are threefold: globalizing his institution, bridging the gap between public service and theory, and hiring younger faculty. Interviews with about 40 past and present law students indicate that Koh is beloved by many, appreciated by nearly all and disliked mainly by political conservatives — and even then, mostly for his policy pronouncements.
For a group of hypercritical lawyers to join in virtual consensus is telling.