Columbia University School of Law has extended an offer to Harvard Law School professor Lani Guinier to teach there as a visiting professor, and hopes to persuade her to stay, according to sources familiar with the offer.
The proposed hire dovetails with a plan at Columbia to establish a civil-rights law center, possibly in collaboration with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, among other nonprofits.
“We would love to collaborate with nonprofit organizations to give them advice about specific issues related to them—mostly issues related to racial justice,” law school dean David Schizer told The Observer. “The idea is, if you can get really first-rate faculty to talk—to spend time—with leading civil-rights advocates, they will come up with very interesting ideas.”
You may know Ms. Guinier as the “Quota Queen,” whose nomination by then-President Bill Clinton to be Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights was abruptly withdrawn in 1993 amid conservative caricatures of her writings advocating a variation on proportional representation. Her recent work, which has been greatly influential in the liberal jurisprudential jet set, examines a range of civil-rights concerns, including the role of race and gender in the political process.
“I think, in Lani Guinier’s case, there’s some interest in helping to put together a civil-rights center at Columbia,” said Professor Thomas Merrill, who heads the appointments committee.
She hasn’t yet accepted the offer, and even if she does, it wouldn’t necessarily mean she’d be leaving Harvard permanently.
Nor is she the only Harvard Law professor sought by Columbia: Another visiting professorship has been offered to leading criminal-law scholar (and outspoken evangelical Christian) William Stuntz.
Visiting offers generally fall into three categories: “podium” visits, where a school really needs a single course in a professor’s specialty; “enrichment” visits, when the school knows the faculty member is going to stay where he or she is, but wants to punch up its program for a semester or a year; and “look-see” visits, when prospective mates are checking each other out to see if they want to commit.
“These, from our perspective, we hope that they’re ‘look-see’ visits,” said Michael Dorf, a law professor at Columbia.
Indeed, particularly in Ms. Guinier’s case—because of the opportunities the civil-rights center might present—Columbia’s offer smells of a play. Ms. Guinier declined to comment.
Ms. Guinier does have professional ties to Columbia. Susan Sturm, Ms. Guinier’s collaborator on several articles as well as a book, is a professor at the law school.
“There is a large cohort of people she might be interested in hanging out with,” Mr. Merrill said.
Before moving to Cambridge, Ms. Guinier taught at the University of Pennsylvania. Harvard had a substantial courtship period with her, a period marked by tumult at the school.
She was first invited to visit at Harvard Law School in 1992. The most senior black member of the Harvard Law School faculty, Derrick Bell Jr., had recently resigned in protest over the absence of a minority-woman faculty member. Students had brought a lawsuit—later dismissed—against the university, alleging that faculty hiring was discriminatory. Ms. Guinier “wasn’t ready,” she told an interviewer for the law-school alumni bulletin in 1999. “The School was embroiled in controversy about faculty hiring,” she said. “I was loath to walk into the middle of it.”
But after experiencing the fallout of her nomination to the Justice Department, nothing seemed intimidating.
“After that grueling experience, I was less worried about how I would fare if I were at the center of a public controversy,” she recalled. She visited for the law school’s short winter term in 1996, and was shortly thereafter made a permanent offer. Ms. Guinier finally joined the faculty—as their first tenured black woman—in the summer of 1998.
Mr. Schizer said he was aiming to raise between $5 million and $10 million for the civil-rights law center, which he hopes will be up and running by the fall. He declined to identify the nonprofit groups with whom the school will partner, but other professors said that the school was in talks with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Fund president Theodore Shaw was traveling and couldn’t be reached for comment.
“I think this is sort of new territory. We’re not looking so much to be a litigation arm; we’re not looking to write briefs for them. We’re looking to write the objective, scholarly briefs that we’ve always done,” said Mr. Schizer. “We might give input about strategic thinking.”
According to several legal scholars interviewed by The Observer, that appears to be the future of civil-rights law. Federal courts have gotten more conservative over the past 30 years—which means lawyers are focusing more of their attention on state constitutions and non-litigation advocacy efforts.
But the civil-rights law center is not the first initiative that the 37-year-old Mr. Schizer has undertaken since he assumed the deanship of Columbia Law School a year and a half ago.
As reported by The Wall Street Journal, hedge-fund manager Alphonse Fletcher Jr. recently pledged $3.2 million over five years toward a professorship “to study issues related to race and social justice, including education, criminal justice and affirmative action.” It will be held by Jack Greenberg, former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Moving the law school into such a highly visible—and hotly contested—area of practice is one way to heighten the school’s profile in the coming years.
In that department, Mr. Schizer has his work cut out for him. In the most recent U.S. News and World Report, Columbia’s law school is ranked fourth in the country, just above New York University School of Law; Harvard is ranked second, below Yale Law School and above third-place Stanford University.
Watching the jockeying for position in that high echelon is a spectator sport for lawyers—and for New York, the stakes are high.
Brian Leiter, head of the law and philosophy program at the University of Texas at Austin, is an inveterate oddsmaker.
“Yale and Harvard dominate everyone else in the legal academy,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Observer. “Fifty years ago that wasn’t true, Yale/Harvard/Columbia were the dominant triumvirate of legal education. Stanford’s rise to prominence came at the expense of Columbia (Stanford raided the Columbia faculty in the early 1960s), and since then Columbia has not generally been as competitive with Yale and Harvard.”
Indeed, what the rankings don’t reflect is the gulf in prestige between second-place Harvard and the two New York schools that take up the fourth and fifth slots.
The central battleground between the schools is in the hiring of law professors. And lately, Harvard—not content to be beaten year after year by the Elis—has become a particularly aggressive jockey.
In 2004, Harvard poached one of the most hotly sought-after legal conservatives, John Manning, then a professor at Columbia.
But Columbia won the next round: Elizabeth Emens, a promising contracts and family-law scholar, received offers from both Columbia and Harvard, and she chose Columbia.
“We managed to beat Harvard on that one,” said Mr. Merrill.
In the meantime, Harvard, which is on a hiring tear, has made offers to legal and political philosopher Jeremy Waldron and legal historian and torts scholar John Witt. And, according to Mr. Schizer, Columbia is going to be voting on additional visiting offers to other Harvard and Yale Law School faculty later this year.
Mr. Stuntz, who is less well known outside the rarefied world of legal scholarship but is a powerful force within it, has personal reasons for wanting to come to New York, he said in an e-mail. Mr. Stuntz often writes about Christian values and the legal system. He co-wrote a criminal-law casebook with Columbia Law professor Debra Livingston (and two other scholars).
He wrote that he will be spending six weeks at Columbia during his sabbatical in the fall.
“Columbia’s faculty hasn’t offered me a permanent position yet, and I haven’t committed to accepting such an offer if it were made. But my understanding is that they’re interested, and I’m interested. I don’t know how to assess the odds, but I’m genuinely uncertain where I’ll be spending the balance of my career. I’m taking this very seriously.”
He added: “Harvard is also a great place, from my perspective: I have wonderful colleagues and students, and I have enormous admiration for my current Dean, Elena Kagan. I’m not thinking about Columbia because of any dissatisfaction with Harvard.”
Mr. Stuntz joined that faculty in 2000; there, he has a position in the dean’s cabinet as vice dean for intellectual life.
So the offer might be seen as an attack on Harvard’s innermost circle—which, if it succeeds, will be good for business at Columbia. And it’s only the beginning.
“Columbia is that hot school right now,” Mr. Schizer said. “We are very competitive with Harvard and Yale, and we expect to hire a few people away from each of those schools.”