As a child, Harold Koh paid rapt attention to his father’s dual career as a diplomat and professor. Koh’s father thrived as an ambassador and embassy official but also in teaching young minds.
“He felt this was an exciting combination,” says the former Yale University law dean, who now serves as the State Department’s legal adviser. “Because of his experiences in government, he could apply bigger ideas to academia. So I went into my career with this in mind.”
President Barack Obama’s administration has liberally appointed career scholars like Koh for high-level policymaking jobs, but for many, their appointments are not their government debut but a stop among various stepping stones. That service often features core work at the lower echelons of government that taps into the scholars’ fields of expertise.
“An individual who puts in time in academia and also in government or the corporate sector often has the well-rounded depth of experiences,” to effectively shape and influence public policy, says Dr. Thomas Hopkins, a Rochester Institute of Technology economics professor who held senior management positions in two White House agencies during the administrations of former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
Hopkins estimates professors comprised at least half the people he hired into what was formerly the Council on Wage and Price Stability and then later the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Having spent five years as a Bowdoin College faculty member and another two as a private firm’s economic adviser, Hopkins moved to Washington, D.C. in 1975 in response to a former Yale classmate’s intriguing job offer: become a staff economist for the Council.
“Like many professions, it was all about networking, and that’s what led to my job offer in D.C.,” Hopkins says. “And that’s how I pulled in scholars. I’d met them at conferences or through Bowdoin or some other academic connection.”
What he discovered was scholars-turned-policymakers tended to have a smoother transition if they could already write reports in lay language for a general audience, rather than merely write for their peers. Further, those scholars who’d already worked nonuniversity jobs had an easier time meeting rigid government deadlines as well as following supervisory directives, rather than expecting the shared governance that is inherent of academia.
A cursory look at some of the Obama administration’s appointees, aside from the Education Department, shows scholars who have also climbed the Beltway career ladder, including working civil service jobs.
Dr. Cecilia Rouse, who’s now on the Council of Economic Advisers, served in the National Economic Council a decade ago. Dr. William Spriggs, who’s now the Labor Department’s assistant secretary for policy, previously held jobs at the Commerce Department and the Small Business Administration. Spriggs was most recently a Howard University economics professor, and Rouse held such a position at Princeton University. Dr. Steven Chu, the energy secretary, used to teach physics at Stanford University and is former director of the University of California-managed Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Some longtime scholars have held elected office too, such as Larry EchoHawk, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary of Indian affairs. A former Idaho attorney general and state legislator, EchoHawk was most recently a Brigham Young University law professor.
Having held two law clerkships at the federal level, Koh spent the early 1980s as a Justice Department staff attorney-adviser. He began teaching at Yale in 1985, taking leave from 1998-2001 to serve as the State Department’s assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor.
His government stints always inform his teaching, Koh says. Last spring, he assigned his students to produce arguments patterned after his experience more than a decade ago trying to convince Congress and others of human rights violations abroad. “Students were supposed to convince a fictitious secretary of state why their groups needed protection. But if the presentation didn’t hold my attention within the first minute, I quit listening. To be good lawyers, they should control and change the flow of conversation.”
Both of Koh’s parents taught at Yale. His brother, Howard, is assistant secretary of health and formerly Harvard University’s associate dean of public health.
Harold Koh’s job calls for providing legal advice on all State Department matters, domestic and international. As he tackles issues like the following, classroom life is always in the back of his mind: In a case in which an American individual sues a foreign country, are there legal grounds for an indigenous animal that country has loaned a U.S. zoo to be sold to pay the plaintiff’s damages?
“Every question I face at work could eventually become some sort of law school exam question,” Koh says with a laugh.