Susannah Barton Tobin
Managing Director of the Climenko Fellowship Program & Assistant Dean for Academic Career Advising, Harvard Law School
Sitting next to someone at sporting events is a good way to get to know their character. How do they react when their team is winning? When it’s losing? When someone gets injured? How do they think about strategy? I’ve had the good fortune over the last ten years to attend a number of Harvard basketball and hockey games with Bill Alford—and how he is as a fan is the same way he is as a person: loyal, generous, and incisive.
When I returned to HLS in 2009, one of my first tasks was collaborating with the Graduate Program to talk with the new LLMs during their orientation. Both Professor Alford and Dean Jeanne Tai were welcoming and supportive. As a newcomer in my role at the Law School, I felt I was being oriented just as the students were—oriented to a culture of dedication and collegiality. On the occasion of his stepping down as Vice Dean for the Graduate Program, I’m grateful for the chance to reflect on all Bill has done—and continues to do—for his students and for HLS. In particular, I’d like to highlight three lessons he’s taught me: first, how to be an advocate. Second, how to listen generously. And third, how to find joy especially during hard times.
Like the best fans in the stands, Bill is a relentless advocate for his students. Anyone who’s been Bill’s student knows how invested he is in their success. His view of the teaching role is capacious—he shares his expertise, his advice, and his time. And he helps students access the full range of resources at this University and across his own—vast—personal network of friends and colleagues. He helps on issues large—recommendations for jobs—and small—loans of books, and everything in between. Despite his incomprehensibly busy schedule, he goes out of his way for every student. Watching how he helps students has raised the bar for the rest of us.
Unlike some fans, Bill will consider the ref’s call before assuming it’s wrong. Among the many jobs Bill has done in his role as Vice Dean for the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies is acting as host for the many dignitaries—lawyers, judges, politicians—visiting HLS from all over the world. Bill’s hospitality and wide range of reference put his visitors at ease and make everyone feel part of the HLS community. When someone is challenging in conversation (challenging is my word, not Bill’s), Bill listens and frames his response with relentless grace and generosity. He models what it means to be a lawyer-statesman—strong in his convictions while open to other viewpoints.
And finally, as a sports fan who has seen his teams at the highest heights and the lowest lows, Bill knows how to find joy even in hard times. As a member of the board for the Special Olympics, Bill has helped bring the opportunity of sport to athletes of all capabilities. As a friend, he finds ways to cheer us with an email when our team does well or “there’s always next year” when it doesn’t. I treasure a signed poster from the Harvard basketball team he collected for me when I was having some health issues.
You’ll notice that in this short piece I’ve referred to several fulltime jobs Bill holds. He has at least one more I haven’t mentioned—faculty advisor to the Harvard hockey team. For years, he has guided student athletes through their athletic and academic careers and into their professional lives. The highest honor a collegiate hockey player can receive is the Hobey Baker award, which goes to the player who “exhibits strength of character both on and off the ice” and “contributes to the integrity of the team and displays outstanding skills in all phases of the game.” More than just a fan, Bill is deserving of our own Hobey Baker Award for his outstanding service.