Heather Gerken ’91 has been selected as the next dean of Yale Law School, Yale University President Peter Salovey announced Feb. 21. Gerken will be the first woman to hold this position.
Gerken is a renowned professor who has taught at both Harvard and Yale, in addition to clerking for Justice David Souter of the United States Supreme Court and practicing law herself. She is also one of the country’s most prominent experts in the fields of constitutional and election law. Her academic work focuses on federalism and diversity.
“Professor Gerken brings a diverse practice experience to the deanship, having worked as an appellate lawyer in Washington, D.C.,” Salovey wrote in a message to the Yale community. He noted that Gerken also served as a senior advisor to Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012.
“At Yale she co-founded and is the faculty advisor to the San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project, an innovative clinic partnering with the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office to address local issues with a national impact,” Salovey wrote.
Gerken graduated summa cum laude with an A.B. degree in history before earning her J.D. from the University of Michigan. She currently serves as a trustee of the University.
In discussing the future she envisions for Yale Law School, Gerken emphasized that her goals address the institution’s place in public discourse as well as individual student needs.
“Thanks to President Eisgruber, Princeton has led the way in talking about the values of university communities during these turbulent times,” Gerken wrote in an email. “I want Yale to do the same with regard to the rule of law. Rule-of-law values are nonpartisan, they run deep within the profession, and we must vigorously defend them in times like these.”
“I want to ensure that every student — including those who are the first in their family to go to college or law school — feels empowered to take advantage of the extraordinary opportunities Yale has to offer,” she added.
Gerken’s senior thesis at the University, which explored the experiences and popular depictions of women during World War II, was titled “Stepping Out of the Bounds of Womanhood.” Gerken has stepped out of bounds herself as the first woman to hold the position of Dean. She said the step is meaningful to her in part because she has a 14-year-old daughter.
“I’ve been so moved by how many of our female alumni have called or written during the last days,” Gerken wrote. “But I’m quite aware that there were many ‘firsts’ before me. Not just the many women who took jobs in factories and the military during World War II, who were the subject of my thesis, but Tracey Meares and Cristina Rodriguez (the first black and Latina women tenured at Yale) and all the first-generation lawyers who set foot in our classes every year. They have led the way, and my path is easier as a result.”
In 2009 Gerken published “The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How to Fix It” with Princeton University Press. She proposed a data-based election evaluation system which would rank the performance of state and local election systems; the concept was adopted by The Pew Charitable Trusts in 2013, creating the nation’s first election performance index. Gerken spoke about the ways our elections should be reformed in the future.
“If I had a magic wand, I’d try to eliminate the pernicious effect of money on our politics. It doesn’t just affect who gets heard in Washington, but is fundamentally reshaping basic political institutions, including the political parties themselves,” she wrote.
Gerken also addressed the important functions that law schools and the legal profession play in today’s political world.
“The last few months have reminded everyone how honorable a profession this is,” Gerken wrote. “Remember those images of lawyers in airports when the travel ban was released? Those lawyers were relying on a case Yale students helped win and using templates that Yale students wrote.”
Lawyers do more than enforce constitutional rights, Gerken said; they also represent the values of conviction and respect that are no longer present in politics.
“Because we train students to question their own arguments and to imagine the best argument for the other side, lawyers may be the only people able to go to war and then go out for drinks afterward,” Gerken wrote. “The ability to do battle and still respect the other side is something people desperately need in this polarized age.”
Gerken said that her experience at the University was important in shaping her career and her life, opening up opportunities that wouldn’t have been available to her otherwise.
“Princeton made all the difference in my life,” Gerken wrote. “I was the product of a small town and a regional public high school. [Princeton] didn’t just train me intellectually; it opened up professional vistas I would never have seen without it.”
“I just wanted to say how lucky you all are,” Gerken added. “No institution is perfect, but Princeton is a place unlike any other. It’s easy to take it for granted.”