Professor at Seoul National University School of Law and Chairman of Korea Trade Commission
Platform Nine and Three-Quarters in Harvard Law Station
It is my great honor to write a tribute to Professor William Alford for his retirement from his vice deanship at Harvard Law School (HLS). I have had the pleasure of getting to know Professor Alford in a number of different capacities over the years. Thirty years ago, he was my academic co-advisor at HLS. He was also my colleague when I was invited to teach at HLS as a visiting professor twice. He was always an enthusiastic supporter whenever I applied to academic or other professional positions including the WTO Appellate Body. Recently, during my tenure for the deanship for Seoul National University School of Law (SNU Law), he was my partner (counterpart) representing HLS for the two institutions’ academic collaboration. He has been a life-long mentor and consultant (of course, free of charge) whenever I needed to make important personal and professional decisions in my life. Most importantly, I am proud to call him one of my best friends. I guess I am entitled to write this humble tribute to Professor Alford.
HE WAS A GATEWAY TO THE HEART OF HLS: It was back in 1991 when I first met him at HLS. At that time, I was a former Seoul District Court judge who had decided to pursue graduate studies with an aim to become an academic. Before then, I had never been in English-speaking countries and naturally felt like an alien upon my arrival in Cambridge. To me, all the HLS professors were Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase. Even though I was a member of the HLS community, besides attending several classes, I was very scared and intimidated before many Professor Kingsfields, perhaps for linguistic and cultural reasons. Hence, I could not attempt to genuinely enter the HLS academic community. Then, Professor Alford approached me with the warm, human smile that every student who has worked with him knows so well. He opened the door wide open for me to enter the HLS world (not just classrooms) through his office. His office at the end of the Pound Hall corridor was like Platform Nine and Three-Quarters in King’s Cross Station leading into the magical world of Harry Potter! I recall that including myself, many international students always knocked on the door of his office not only to see him, but also to enter the HLS academic forum through his kind guidance. Without his heart-warming welcome in his office, hundreds of international students like myself might merely have lingered around the HLS campus as “muggles” until graduation, without ever finding the entrance to the magical “H world”.
HE IS A KIND AND ENTHUSIASTIC, BUT STRICT TEACHER: For the last thirty years, I suspect Professor Alford has supervised several hundred students’ theses on international and comparative law subjects. In September every year, several dozen incoming students ask for his supervision of their dissertations. Whenever he can not do it himself, he always kindly advises many students on how to find suitable professors within HLS. At this time, I cannot avoid revealing a secret between us, which he may not remember now. As he was a very popular professor and many students approached him for his academic mentorship, I assumed my chance to have him as an advisor was slim. I instead approached another professor for my L.L.M. thesis supervision, but this professor was hesitant because my LLM thesis topic was not about U.S. law, but too international and comparative for him. At that difficult time, Professor Alford saved me by persuading that professor to co-supervise my LLM thesis with him. Many times, I proudly told others that Professor Alford volunteered to co-supervise my thesis, but the truth is he actually saved me when I was frustrated with serious difficulties in finding a thesis supervisor. He was this kind and enthusiastic teacher, but at the same time very strict and demanding when teaching and supervising his students. For example, I needed to see him for comments and advice on my draft LLM and SJD dissertations, perhaps more than thirty times.
HIS ACADEMIC MENTORSHIP NEVER ENDS: Professor Alford’s academic mentorship did not end when his students left HLS. For example, when I practiced at a Washington, D.C., law firm after my SJD program, he always encouraged me to pursue an academic career, which led me to teach at Georgetown as an adjunct professor. Without his encouragement, I might have ended up as a practicing attorney, rather than becoming a fulltime academic at my alma mater, SNU Law. I believe he has done the same thing for at least a hundred of his former HLS students. His own academic achievements in the field of international and comparative law are enormous and so difficult to summarize in this short tribute. Instead, I would rather highlight that Professor Alford has produced dozens of avatars who are now recognized as leading scholars in international and comparative law all over the world, although not in the exoplanet of Pandora.
His mentorship again did not end with helping his former students become academics in international and comparative law. For the last thirty years, he has quietly created an unnamed global academic circle under the big umbrella of HLS. For example, he often helped his former students and HLS visitors establish connections and collaborate with each other in various academic activities in international and comparative law. He was also an active co-organizer of the Harvard-Stanford International Junior Faculty Forum where he invited talented junior scholars in international and comparative law from various countries.
HE PERSISTENTLY PUSHED HIS FORMER STUDENTS TO BROADEN THEIR LIMITS: Whenever I encountered critical decision-making moments in my professional life, Professor Alford always encouraged me to reach further and jump higher. Without him, I might have turned to other easier and more comfortable jobs. Without his support, I would not have pursued my SJD degree. Without his encouragement, I would not have moved from Washington, D.C., to Seoul to become a full-time academic. Without his guidance, I would not have tried to teach at many leading law schools in the world beyond Korea. Whenever I hesitated to broaden my horizon, he kindly, but persistently said, “You can and should do it!” Again, what I want to emphasize here is not that Professor Alford was special only to me, but that he did the same thing for his other former students who are now recognized as leading scholars in international and comparative law.
HE CONVERTED HLS INTO A GENUINELY GLOBAL LAW SCHOOL: Three decades ago, surely HLS was a leading law school in the United States, but it did not appear to function as a global center for international and comparative legal studies. In the eyes of a new foreign student, it was ironic that although many world-renowned scholars in the field of international and comparative law visited HLS, and many of the most talented foreign students were there, not many HLS professors were interested in international subjects, nor was the HLS curriculum very internationally oriented. Ever since Professor Alford took on the role as an international face of HLS, things have gradually, but vividly changed. Under his leadership, HLS has become a world leader in the field of international and comparative studies.
Under his vice deanship, the HLS curriculum improved in terms of its international focus. Compared to the early 1990s when I was a student, diverse courses in international subjects have become available for HLS students. His effort to make mandatory at least one international or comparative law course for all HLS JD students undoubtedly contributed to opening all HLS students’ eyes to the world beyond the United States.
This curriculum change seemed to go hand in hand with his extra efforts to invite more world-renowned international scholars to visit and teach at HLS, which enriched the curriculum to be far more diverse and international. I realized HLS began to change when I was invited to teach WTO law courses in the 2007–08 academic year. When I came back to HLS once again in 2011, I witnessed even more meaningful changes in the same direction.
Professor Alford’s effort to make HLS the leading international law school did not end with changing the curriculum or inviting more renowned foreign professors to HLS. He also engaged HLS professors for the purpose of helping them broaden their horizons beyond U.S. law and policy. Many times, he connected HLS professors and their counterparts in foreign law schools while sparing his valuable time to make arrangements for many HLS faculty members to visit foreign academic institutions in order to share their ongoing research or exchange academic wisdom. For example, during his vice deanship, a dozen HLS faculty members visited Korea and in particular SNU Law. SNU was just one of many leading academic institutions outside the United States that benefitted from Professor Alford’s leadership.
HE WAS AN EXPORTER OF THE HLS MODEL: Perhaps it is not well-known that Professor Alford has been exporting the best of the HLS model of legal education to other leading law schools outside the United States. His effort in this regard also contributed to making HLS a model law school around the world. For example, he was keen to help other foreign law schools follow the HLS model not only in international and comparative legal studies, but also in other subjects such as clinical education and pro bono programs as well. A few years ago, he himself welcomed the SNU Law delegation’s visit to HLS and encouraged HLS clinicians and pro bono work leaders to share their clinical education and pro bono program models with the SNU delegation. In exchange, he also sent out HLS pro bono program representatives to SNU Law to pave the path for HLS in the future to send HLS students abroad for their pro bono work. Following the HLS model, SNU Law under my deanship further activated the clinical education and pro bono programs, with an ambition to become an Asian role model in those programs. This is merely one example of how Bill contributed to turning HLS into a global legal education center, one that exports desirable models of legal education for many foreign law schools to follow.
I cannot imagine what my professional life would look like without Bill Alford. I would suspect that more than a hundred of his former students might feel the same way. What would HLS would look like in the absence of his eighteen-year commitment and service as Vice Dean? I cannot imagine that either.