The Socratic Method: Cass Sunstein
Professor Sunstein recently returned to HLS after 3 years as the head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a position he described as being in the “cockpit of the regulatory state.”
The Socratic Method: As you may know, the Harvard Law Record has been online-only for a while and we are bringing back a print edition. We thought it would be interesting to talk about legal education and the role of Harvard Law School in American society with a number of professors. To start with, when and why did you decide to become a law professor?
Cass Sunstein: I think it was when I was clerking for Justice Marshall, and I guess I thought that if I had a chance to become a law professor, it’s [would be a] great way to combine the ability to spend time thinking and reflecting while also, if you’re lucky, being able to make a contribution to what actually happens. There are multiple ways to combine the capacity for reflection with the ability to make a contribution, but the law professor one seemed most appealing to me.
TSM: You are obviously someone who has made a contribution both within law schools and by being able to combine careers outside. Focusing on the law school part of it, how do you see your role shaping the career choices of your students?
CS: Well, I think the best thing a student can do is follow his or her own drummer, and the best thing a law school can do is to expand the universe of good drummers. So when I look at – I’ve had so many students who are doing such amazing things – if I’ve had any effect on them it’s that there have been some topics or ideas that have connected well with their own enthusiasms and abilities. So if you have someone who is interested in environmental protection, and there is an administrative law course that shows what some of the live issues are and [what] the avenues for contribution are, that can really get people enthusiastic about that route. If you
have someone who is keenly interested in immigration policy and there is some case in a course that raises an issue and it seems like the legal system really could do better than it is now doing, sometimes that will get people thinking that’s an avenue they’d like to go in. So I think the best some of us can do is [hope] our own interests and enthusiasms can connect with the interests and enthusiasms of others.
TSM: Do you think there are avenues of influence other than by impacting the students who are going to graduate and do other things?
CS: Well I do think that law professors have two principal jobs. One is to teach and the other is to do academic work. Even if some do other things, those are the principal jobs that you are lucky [to have]. So the teaching is of course one. I do think that academic research is exceptionally important. Sometimes it’s important in the immediate sense that there will be an idea that someone will run with who is in a position to run with it. It could be a judge in a court of appeals; it could be someone at the Environmental Protection Agency. And the other is that if academic work is really good it may have a long-term effect in helping to orient how people think. So there is no question that Justice Kagan’s essay, “Presidential Administration,” helps orient how people think about separation of powers. And John Hart Ely wrote this great book, “Democracy and Distrust,” that has defined how many think about Constitutional Law all over the world. My wife wrote a book coming out of Harvard Law School called “A Problem From Hell,” which has had a very big effect in helping to orient how people think about human rights and genocide. I think it’s important not to understate the power of the written word. So in addition to the teaching, there’s the research responsibility, which is absolutely central.