Ikechukwu Bernard Okafor
LL.M ’17 and S.J.D. Candidate, Harvard Law School
The Welcome Speech: Why It Was Easy to Approach Professor Alford
In 2016, I listened attentively to Professor Alford’s welcome speech to the LL.M Class. I could not have been more proud of my fortune as a member of the incoming class and the rare privilege of being admitted to the Harvard Law School. It was a welcome speech properly so called – clear, coherent, warm, and robust in its introduction to the ongoing project to build a global force for good. With a carefully articulated delivery, Professor Alford highlighted the expansive coverage of the Graduate and International Legal Studies Program across the world, the continuing links between the Law School community and global alumni, and the encouraging testimonies of their positive impact on their communities. It was a clear call to rise to the honor of utilizing the enormous resources provided by the Law School to improve global society. It was clear that Professor Alford was not merely leading the program as the Vice Dean from his office, but was active in the field for these global advancements. It was also a message packaged in humor and a realistic approach to what is required to make an impactful contribution to society. It was delivered in a relaxed and enthusiastic atmosphere that left us reassured that we would have all the support we needed to harness our potentials. Above all, it was clearly communicated that Professor Alford was a very approachable, friendly, committed, and supportive leader who would do what was necessary to support his students. He encouraged us to visit him, interact with him, and seek his support where necessary, as we navigated through the LL.M program.
My Close Encounters with Professor Alford: When Leaders Understand Cultural Dynamics
A jurist, grappling with the requirements for skillful mastery of the art and science of adversarial advocacy once asked; if an attorney whose native language is not English, though fluent in English language, conducts a trial in an English court, in what language does the person think? This is not a question about proper expression of ideas, but of an internal battle between the nuances of meanings, perceptions, and ramifications of native ideas and their translations in English as the language of the court. An important piece of the idea may be lost in transmission between initial thoughts and their expression, as different languages do not have exact meanings for the same ideas. A similar, and perhaps, more complex terrain exists for international students from diverse cultures studying in the United States. Not only could their language of thought be different, but the cultural contexts in which they process meanings may be radically different. This gap between outward expression and internal dialogue is embedded in the initial culture shock and possible impostor syndrome many foreign students experience. These are usually expressed as a range of emotions from extreme excitement to finally set foot at Harvard Law School and doubt and confusion for what could possibly go wrong. As one of the international students to have navigated through these cultural and emotional pathways, including personal crossroads at the point of admission, it was extremely refreshing and reassuring to have found an enormous wealth of experience, effective feedbacks, and strong support from Professor Alford’s leadership and the Graduate Program team. Professor Alford helped me set my foot on the right path when I was in the trenches of these uncertainties.
Quality leadership may be distilled down to a checklist of skillsets, reproduceable patterns of behavior, or whatever else the “leadership guru” thinks mere mortals interested in this subject must know. But is there not something about individual personalities that make all the difference, that cannot be reproduceable? I have found peace and gratitude in ruminating over my life at Harvard Law School, the journey that brought me here, and the people that made it happen. Professor Alford and his unique leadership stands prominently as the critical support I needed to make informed decisions when they mattered most. He served as the voice of providence that nudged me through the trenches of my internal dialogues to the path of clarity. Having thought through these experiences, I have concluded that what makes Professor Alford’s leadership unique and impactful is the “Alford Factor” in him. While this is an unhelpful explanation of its own meaning, it emphasizes the difficulty in characterizing the sterling qualities of professor Alford that seamlessly combine to create his outstanding level of friendliness, approachability, and his unassuming nature, with his towering accomplishments, wealth of knowledge, and professorial pedigree in the top echelon of international scholars.
As an international student from a country with a radically different cultural legacy from the United States, my initial encounters with Professor Alford were confusing to me. My experience was from the perspective of the “high-power distance” index that defers to authorities with a frequent deification of persons with towering accomplishments. So, how could Professor Alford be so accomplished, yet so approachable, almost to a fault, at least from the perspective of my own world view? Skills for transitioning from high-power distance index culture to low-power distance index culture are not automatic, but it is even more difficult when interacting with a person like Professor Alford who has indeed earned the praise he deserves through his impressive achievements. Other students from different countries I have interacted with over these years have also alluded to these qualities of Professor Alford in drawing distinctions and admirations for his personality and leadership style. But the real awakening moment for me was during an address delivered by Professor Ruth Okediji. While acknowledging Professor Alford, she noted that he is a mentor with a track record of effortlessly making enduring impacts in his mentees’ lives while maintaining his authenticity in a manner that never ceases to amaze. She noted that while Professor Alford had always insisted she address him by his first name, her continuing awe has insisted on addressing him with much deference, and noted that her mother would be proud of her for always doing so.
Perhaps, the most outstanding quality of Professor Alford in his successful leadership as the Vice Dean of the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies Program is his extraordinary ability to listen and actively show understanding of the spectrum of challenges facing international students. It appears to me that Professor Alford understands these cultural diversities in the backgrounds of students and goes the extra mile in making his students comfortable during interactions with him. For example, a quick sidewalk chat with him, if you to catch him coming from class or elsewhere, was almost always as fruitful as discussions during an office hour appointment. He was always quick to show empathy, listen attentively, and advise on directions that would most likely yield the best results. Needless to note here that he would remember much of your last discussion and ask for updates on the issues discussed at any other time you met with him. He also makes interactions with him easier by making references to past students, usually from the student’s country or background who may have had similar challenges and how they successfully dealt with it. He was always ready to put in words or enlist help from his networks where appropriate to help a student in need.
The International and Comparative Law Workshop
I had the privilege of being a student of the International and Comparative Law Workshop led by Professor Alford during my LL.M year. My participation in class and the guidance provided by Professor Alford provided me the impetus to clear my initial doubts and proceed to the S.J.D. program. I believe it also had the same impact for other classmates who got into the S.J.D. program. Professor Alford used the class to somewhat demystify the art and science of academic writing for the students. He particularly encouraged us to provide bold and articulate responses, pushbacks, and advancement of alternative ideas to papers presented at the workshop. The presenters also acknowledged the benefits of the response papers in sharpening their ideas and critiquing their thoughts. On the final day of class most students said they were more confident and better prepared to engage in comparative studies and other academic writing than they would have been at the end of the academic year without the workshop. Personally, I found three things to be my most rewarding takeaways from the class. First, the clear and pragmatic feedback I received in my first submitted response paper set me up for better style and structure in my writing. Second, the carefully selected presenters provided me with the opportunity to easily identify with the journey of academic writing. Finally, the papers presented covered most of the archetypes of legal research and writing, thereby making it easier for me to understand the scope, diversity, and methodologies in current legal academic scholarship.
My Good Wishes to Professor Alford
I count it a great privilege to have been admitted into the LL.M and S.J.D. programs of the Law School during the 18 years Professor Alford has lead the Graduate and International Legal Studies Program as the Vice Dean. I also count it a privilege to have had the opportunities to interact with him and receive the guidance he provided. I always looked forward to his attendance at the S.J.D. colloquium and have benefited immensely from his contributions to the colloquium presentations. His ideas have contributed in shaping the ways I think about academic scholarship. I hope he will continue with consistent attendance of the colloquium and continue to make his perspectives available to the S.J.D. presentations. I wish him the best life ahead, in sound health, and more fulfilment in all his ongoing endeavors.