Editor: Dean Koh, would you tell our readers something about your background?
Koh: I came to the U.S. because my father was one of the first Koreans to study law in America. He was an international law professor in Korea, who came to Harvard Law School for his Masters and then S.J.D. degree. After a false start as a physics major, early on I became interested in international law and particularly in East Asian law. Following Harvard College, I attended Magdalen College, Oxford - from which both Justice Breyer and Justice Souter graduated - as a Marshall Scholar. After Harvard Law School, I clerked for Judge Malcolm Wilkey of the D.C. Circuit, who was one of the most eminent international law specialists on the federal bench. I went on to clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun, working during an exciting year on a range of international cases. I then worked at Covington & Burling in Washington DC and at the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department during the Reagan administration, where I was engaged in issues regarding the Constitution and foreign affairs. In the evenings I taught international business transactions at George Washington University Law School. Starting in 1985, I joined the Yale law faculty, where I have taught, among other things, civil procedure, the law of U.S. foreign policy, and international business transactions and international trade. Over time I have moved into the area of international human rights, and I have found that area very fulfilling.
Editor: What were the factors that went into your decision to choose a career in academic law?
Koh: I am certain that I have been influenced by my Korean background. In East Asia the most honored profession is that of a scholar. Over the course of my clerkships and work in a variety of settings, in addition, I had developed a very keen interest in certain areas of international law. When I first began to teach in these areas as an adjunct, I came to realize that teaching was more important to me than practice. My father liked to say: "Theory without practice is as lifeless as practice without theory is lifeless." The academy has presented me with a unique opportunity to do both theory and practice.
Editor: You have also been engaged in some very significant work for the government. Can you tell us about the highlights of what has been something of a parallel career to your scholarly endeavors?
Koh: Shortly after I got tenure at Yale, I became involved in human rights litigation in U.S. courts. We started a clinic here at Yale called the Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic, and as a part of this program we filed briefs in virtually every case raising an international human rights issue before the federal courts at the appellate level and above. I argued the Haitian refugee case before the U.S. Supreme Court in this capacity, as but one example. This has been enormously helpful in enabling me to understand how human rights lawyers in the NGO sector operate.
I have alluded to my stint with the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department. After my NGO work, in the late 1990s I served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which was a fascinating position and enabled me to work on Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor and a whole range of international human rights issues and democracy-building policies. Since returning to Yale in 2001, I have continued to file briefs in important human rights cases, particularly in those raising issues of civil liberties after September 11.
Editor: How has Yale Law School evolved over the 20 years you have been a member of the faculty?
Koh: The striking thing is how much the institution has stayed the same. We are a small law school, and we have an elite student body and a most outstanding group of scholars on our faculty. We produce future leaders for the academic world, for business and the bar and for public service. All of these things have remained constant over the 20 years I have been here. At the same time, the impact of globalization on the world's understanding of markets, rights, governance, and connections over this period has been profound. Addressing globalization - the need to develop a curriculum and programs that reflect a new globalized reality - is among my principal priorities, along with trying to align the school with the needs of the profession, encouraging students to consider public service, and rejuvenating the faculty. Regarding the latter priority, we have, I believe, the finest law faculty in the country, but it needs to be rebuilt in every generation, and renewal is a continuous process that we need to face.
Editor: What are the challenges you have found in your first year as dean?
Koh: I am less than a year into the job, so I am still learning how to keep a number of balls in the air at the same time. I lead basically three lives: that of a scholar and teacher in the international law area; that of principal administrator of the school; and that of outreach to the school's external constituencies. It is challenging, but it is also exhilarating.
Speaking as one who has inherited a very great responsibility from earlier generations, let me point out that Yale Law School has produced United States Supreme Court Justices, the leading legal scholars in the world, United States Senators, and Presidents of the United States. If we, in turn, are going to hand on to our successors an institution that measures up to its past, we need to bring to the school the best scholars and teachers doing work anywhere. That, I think, is the principal challenge that I will face this year and for the entirety of my term of office.
Editor: And the rewards?
Koh: I find it immensely rewarding to be at the center of what is a major shift in legal education toward a global agenda, particularly because Yale Law School is in such a strong position to provide intellectual leadership for this transformation. To be an administrator and fund-raiser for an institution such as this is both important and rewarding at any time, but to be at the helm when it is attempting to globalize its curriculum, its student body and its faculty, and to develop programs that are commensurate with this evolution, is just about the most exciting position anyone could have. I am extremely fortunate that the theme of globalization has played such an important part of my own career development. That has enabled me, I think, to approach these issues with a great deal of real-world knowledge and confidence.
Editor: How do you go about recruiting, and then retaining, one of the great faculties of the world?
Koh: We are lucky to have a certain momentum in this regard. What makes Yale special is that it is a community of commitment to world class scholarship, to professional excellence and to service for the greater good. There is something irresistible about that. The people who join our faculty tend to do so because they have a conscious desire to belong to such a special community. There are, of course, special challenges. The two-career family is one. There was a time when it was possible to recruit one spouse and not worry about the other. No longer. Diversity in the teaching ranks is another. It is crucial to have a law faculty that is as varied in its background and ways of thinking as the student body and the profession as a whole. Another challenge is academic mobility: fewer scholars stay at one institution for their entire career today. I would like to be able to so strengthen our community of commitment here that it becomes an irresistible magnet: once on board, our faculty should never wish to leave.
Editor: You have had a career-long focus on international human rights. The Orville Schell Center for International Human Rights is at the center of this discussion. Please tell us about the Center and its mission.
Koh: The Center was formed in 1989 as the scholarly wing of the human rights program at Yale. It was named after Orville Schell, a distinguished graduate of Yale College, a senior partner at Hughes Hubbard & Reed, and one of the founders of Human Rights Watch. The Schell Center brought together the high energy and activism of the already existing Allard Lowenstein Human Rights Project (which had harnessed student human rights energy) and the academic focus that was so reflective of Orville Schell's contribution to the human rights discussion. We have a vibrant human rights curriculum, led by Professors Paul Kahn and Jim Silk, and many of the graduates of our program are now leading the human rights discussion at leading law schools across the country.
Editor: The China Law Center is a new undertaking at Yale. Can you tell us something about its role in the development of the profession in China?
Koh: The China Law Center was developed in 1999 with two missions: to support the process of legal reform underway in China and to increase an understanding of the Chinese legal system outside of the country. The principal focus has been on civil and criminal judicial reform, but the Center, under the direction of Professor Paul Gewirtz, has also pursued a great number of projects which deal with establishing the rule of law and civil society in China, including open government, freedom of information, and the like. The China Law Center has been extremely active in trying to support rule-of-law developments in what is a breakout moment in the evolution of the Chinese legal system.
Editor: China is in the process of become a major economic force in East Asia and across the world. As the country becomes a contributing member of the global economy, a great deal of attention is being paid to its progress on a variety of rule of law issues. Is there a role for Yale Law School in this development?
Koh: Yes. I think we take the rule of law too much for granted in America. The rule of law is not just an abstract concept. It is also a set of institutions, legal codes and judicial precedents that inject predictability into all kinds of conduct, including commercial conduct. China is determined to be a full contributing member of the global economy, and that means becoming part of a global legal system that includes human rights and a transparent international legal structure which accords economic oversight to organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the World Bank. The key question, of course, is whether China can join the international legal system by implementing international standards as part of its domestic legal system. China must be part of the global legal system, but it must also play by global legal rules. Yale has been connected with China for more than 150 years. I believe that Yale Law School is in a unique position to participate in the discussion that will enable China to address this question and, I trust, answer it in a way that benefits both its people and everyone else.
Editor: Please tell us about your vision for Yale Law School. Where would you like the institution to be in, say, ten years?
Koh: In ten years I hope that we will have a younger and more diverse faculty, and a more global faculty, curriculum, student body and outreach programs. I would hope that our students would see themselves not as scriveners, but as architects of a new global legal order. They should consider themselves as having a mandate to give some portion of their careers to serving the public interest; in our society, the most privileged should serve the least privileged. In terms of legal education, we are moving toward a new interdisciplinarity: interdisciplinary ties with other professions, such as journalism, business, public health, and the environment. I believe Yale Law School has a role to play in fostering such interdisciplinarity.
More broadly, I believe that we are entering an era in which the international educational agenda is going to be dominated by a very small number of truly global universities. Yale Law School and Yale University will be among them, and I am hopeful that my deanship will contribute to ensuring this development.