Larry Kramer had a problem. In his first year as dean, he’d gained consensus on remaking much of Stanford Law School and its curriculum. But Kramer believed that several cornerstones of the transformation—including new full-time clinics and better support for joint degree students—required switching the law school’s calendar from semesters to quarters. For many professors, a move like that was no easy pill to swallow; it would throw syllabi, schedules, and school traditions into disarray.
That Kramer ultimately passed quarters by a 40-10 vote—and still counts the 10 nays among his most devoted admirers and friends—adds up to more than a dean navigating faculty politics to produce an arcane administrative change. It’s the story of an institution transformed by a man with an unusual amount of energy and ambition, plus a personality that his fans describe as melding a bull in a china shop with a cuddly teddy bear. Many believe that Stanford Law School came into its own during Kramer’s tenure. Beyond a curricular overhaul and two new major buildings, Kramer connected the law school with the resources and prestige of the broader university. “We really became Stanford under him,” says Frank Brucato, the law school’s chief financial officer.
How Kramer led the school isn’t just an academic question. This fall, he took the helm of one of the largest pots of money in the world, the $7.3 billion of the Hewlett Foundation, with an equally outsized ambition: to fix a democracy that he thinks is at its breaking point.
A 36-YEAR-OLD KRAMER ARRIVED IN MANHATTAN SPORTING A PONYTAIL, a goatee, an earring, and a dog named Sam who never left his side. John Sexton, then dean of NYU law school (and now NYU’s president), had recruited Kramer to help transform NYU into a top-tier law school. Kramer’s decade at NYU foreshadowed the energy and ambition Kramer would bring to Stanford.
Then, as now, Kramer spoke his mind. That sometimes offended colleagues. “He was very passionate and adamant about how a law school should run,” says Michael Klausner, Nancy and Charles Munger Professor of Business and Professor of Law, a colleague at both NYU and Stanford, who helped recruit Kramer to lead Stanford Law. “At NYU, there were people who were fairly angry at Larry and questioned whether he could be a good dean because he was so uncompromising about his ideas on legal education.” At the University of Michigan Law School, where Kramer taught previously, he had pushed hard for curricular reforms and “nobody would have any of it,” a colleague there recalls.
In New York, Kramer grappled with his professional goals. “Larry is ambitious. … He wants to apply himself deeply, wants to be masterly,” says Michael Kaufman, a friend from Brown University and a software engineer in New York. “Larry understands how to respond to opportunities that touch him.”
A younger Kramer had vowed to himself that he’d leave the academy by age 40—for government or a firm. (Friends say that a Supreme Court position or other political appointment had long been on his radar. Al Gore’s defeat in 2000, when Kramer was 42, largely closed that chapter.) “At 40, not only was I still teaching, I hadn’t achieved all my own internal standards,” he says. “I got massively depressed and vowed that by 50 I would have achieved my goals in academia and move on.”
Kramer channeled his frustration, and his ambitions, into a new scholarly project that required teaching himself the discipline of history. The result was a book, The People Themselves, which demonstrated that the outsized role courts play today in interpreting the Constitution is largely a modern invention.
In researching the book, he met Jack Rakove, W. R. Coe Professor of History and American Studies and professor of law at Stanford—who, along with Klausner, served on the search committee for a new Stanford Law dean. Kramer’s book was published on the same day he was offered the deanship. One day later, at dinner with NYU Law Professor Daryl Levinson and their wives at The Red Cat in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, everyone was in tears. Levinson recalls toasting Kramer and saying, “Here’s to the beginning and end of your academic career.”
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KRAMER MOVED WEST two months before his official start date, throwing himself into the job. He learned the university planned a major capital campaign, The Stanford Challenge—what Kramer calls “an excuse to have ideas.” Over the course of the fall of 2004, Kramer conducted numerous one-on-one meetings with every member of the faculty and staff and assembled a “cabinet” of the deans for repeated sessions at his home. His job, he felt, was to find “a story that captured what pretty much everyone [on the faculty] wanted.” That story emerged surprisingly quickly—within months—and most of Kramer’s eight-year tenure was devoted to implementing the changes, from grade reform to clinics to joint degree programs.
The biggest hurdle was aligning the law school’s semester calendar to match Stanford University’s quarter system. The first faculty meeting on the subject was a “nightmare,” Kramer recalls. “Those opposed didn’t trust me and thought I’d ramrod it through.” Although it would have come as a surprise to most of the faculty, Kramer had the votes—in meetings with nearly every professor, he’d learned there was a two-to-one majority in favor. But the dissenters were vocal and comprised many of the law school’s most revered senior faculty members. “He could have shoved quarters through early on; he had the votes, but doing that would have created resentment,” says Barbara H. Fried, William W. and Gertrude H. Saunders Professor of Law at Stanford.
Kramer held a drawn-out series of five meetings, refusing to allow any votes until the fourth. Knowing the rancor that still existed among the dissenters, he proposed a compromise that would keep semesters, but shift them slightly to align better with the university. The compromise plan barely passed; the pro-quarters faction turned out to be nearly as strong as the anti-quarters faction and was unsatisfied with the half-measure. Kramer at last allowed a straw poll on quarters, revealing what he’d known all along—quarters held a two-and-a-half-to-one majority in the faculty.
Still, he delayed a formal vote. Hoping to assuage the dissenters, Kramer held another meeting and proposed a second compromise—a gradual shift to quarters over three years, with a modified-semester trial period first. This move epitomized Kramer’s leadership style—consultative and inclusive, but decisive and headstrong. “He’s careful, he consults, he’s respectful,” says Geoffrey Stone, Kramer’s Civil Procedure teacher at Chicago. “But when he figures out what he wants to do, he wants to do it; he’s not hesitant.”
Kramer’s handling of the financial crisis—which came in the midst of an ambitious fundraising campaign and two major building projects, the Munger Graduate Residence and the William H. Neukom Building—showed similar fortitude. Brucato recalls that Kramer didn’t handle the economic downturn the way most administrators would have, by first figuring out what to cut. “He started by looking at what to protect,” Brucato says. That meant, first of all, not touching financial aid—a decision Kramer made even though Brucato disagreed. Instead, Kramer decided to redouble fundraising efforts for financial aid to fill a projected shortfall. “He just didn’t think it was right to cut financial aid at a time when students’ personal and family finances might be in trouble.”
Brucato also credits Kramer’s foresight and enthusiasm for key projects with their ultimate success. Another area of tremendous growth at the law school has been in academic programs and centers, which amounted to a small handful in 2006 and numbers 22 today, including the Criminal Justice Center, the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, and the Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance. Rather than waiting for all of the necessary funding to be in place before launching a new center or program, Brucato says, “Larry thought if you do it right and build it, people will support it. It was frightening sometimes to go down those roads. But in the end, he was right. We’ve gotten tremendous support for these initiatives.”
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AT A FAREWELL PARTY HELD on August 14 in Stanford Law’s Crocker Garden, faculty, alumni, and staff—and a Beatles tribute band brought in to play for the occasion—toasted Kramer’s departure and presented him with a surprise honor—the atrium of the old office building will be renovated and renamed for him.
Before the event, Fried solicited memories from faculty members for a book of reminiscences. A deep current of affection and personal loyalty to Kramer pervades these accounts. Many pointed to Kramer’s generosity and eagerness to play the role of a “fixer” in people’s personal or professional lives. “He wants to take care of everyone at every level,” says Levinson. “There are no lines between personal and professional … he’s like an old-fashioned rabbi.” (On a fundraising trip to New York shortly after Levinson’s son was born, Kramer bounded in unannounced, having assembled an idiosyncratic care package from 18 New York shops, featuring “special colic drops that he believed in and nobody else did,” which were sold only at a pharmacy in Chinatown.)
Beyond their intense loyalty toward him, faculty and staff trusted Kramer to make changes because he proved willing to follow through and handle the nitty-gritty. “He was the dean of yes,” says Fried. “If he could possibly say yes, he turned himself inside out, professionally and personally, to make something happen.” Fried witnessed him, on more than one occasion, offer to give his own house to prospective faculty members—much to his wife’s horror—if they’d only agree to come to the law school.
When the new quarters calendar threatened to disrupt law firm summer internship schedules, Kramer personally called scores of employers, convincing 50 of them to change their summer program schedules to accommodate Stanford Law students. “He’s not someone who just stands and throws out visions,” says Susan Robinson, associate dean for career services. “He’ll make the calls and write the letters.”
Stories of Kramer replying instantly to emails at all hours of the night are legion. Kramer asked that the dean’s congratulatory letter to admitted students come directly from his email account, offering all admitted students the opportunity to correspond with him. “He wanted to learn more about each of them,” says Faye Deal, associate dean for admissions and financial aid. “Time and time again, I’d hear from admitted students about how easy he was to talk with, about how conversations with him were just like talking to a friend.”
The capstone of Kramer’s vision—connecting the law school to the broader university, through programs like interdisciplinary centers and joint degrees—paid dividends in recruiting students.
“One of the very first comments Larry made … that really hit home, was that for a small school like Stanford Law to thrive, we need to draw on the resources of the rest of the university,” says Deal. “When we admitted students, we told them to not simply compare Stanford Law School to all the other offers they were getting. Instead, compare Stanford Law School and Stanford University to those other offers.”
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THE STEREOTYPE OF ACADEMICS often involves incredibly deep, narrow, sometimes single-minded focus. Kramer, by contrast, bounces through more interests in a few minutes than many people do in a lifetime.
He’s obsessed with music—especially the Beatles and the neo-punk, new wave/no wave scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. “Dissonant, angry, brash music and the Beatles—that captures Larry’s personality,” Levinson says. “He wants to bust things up; he relishes transformation and creative destruction. On the other hand, he’s so deeply sweet and caring, it allows people to trust and sympathize with him.”
Kramer’s off-hours pursuits extend to fiction, to Scotch, to movies. A Game of Thrones devotee, he had a chance encounter with the writer working on the television adaptation. Kramer quickly fired off several pages of unsolicited emails, filled with questions and must-dos and don’ts for the project. (In exchange, he’ll get a walk-on role—but not his first. In the film adaptation of Ender’s Game, to be released next year, Kramer stands with Harrison Ford throughout a key final scene; Kramer cajoled an entertainment-lawyer alumnus to get him an invitation.)
Being dean meant giving up many of those passions. “I think of myself as of my generation: job obsessed, career obsessed,” Kramer says. “This job was my best opportunity to make a real difference … and I put everything except my family aside.”
But wanderlust for his old hobbies makes Kramer an unusually eager, and effective, fundraiser. “There’s some vicarious replacement for all the things he’d have done himself, because he meets people he finds so genuinely fascinating,” Levinson says.
Kramer averaged 200 fundraising visits each year during his tenure, often spending five or more hours a day dropping in on alumni while traveling. Associate Director of Development Mary Baskauskas, who often traveled with him, says Kramer could talk enthusiastically about any subject—academic, musical, culinary, or even his CrossFit fitness program. That helped Kramer draw out each alum’s personal story. “From there Larry would find points of common interest so by the time he said, ‘Let me tell you what’s going on at Stanford Law School,’ they were engaged with him and ready to listen,” she says.
Kramer’s zeal for his ideas, and his genuineness, could be disarming. Brad Jones, JD/MBA ‘81, who chaired the law school’s campaign, found Kramer’s honesty refreshing: “It’s not just that he’s going to smooth everything over … Larry will take a disagreement head on and try to convince you why he’s right.”
In part because he enjoys talking to people, Kramer consulted broadly. He called alumni to figure out how to realign the curriculum with the skills today’s lawyers need. “Very few people have the fortitude to listen that widely,” says Michelle Galloway, JD ’89, of counsel at Cooley LLP and chair of the law fund. One result of those conversations: This fall, Galloway is co-teaching a class that covers law firm economics, team management, and communication—skills necessary for practice but usually omitted from legal education.
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NOW ENSCONCED AS HEAD OF THE HEWLETT FOUNDATION, the sixth largest grant-giver in the country, Kramer is in a position to effect change much more broadly. “Larry has learned to deal in this world of big money and marshaling huge resources,” says Kaufman. “This is an opportunity to reshape the world on a larger scale. … He feels passionately about how the world could be better.”
Kramer, whose eight-year tenure was on the long side for a dean, considered moving up in the world of university administration but decided the Hewlett opportunity was unlikely to come around again. He’s the second law school dean to lead the foundation; he succeeds Paul Brest, who ran the law school from 1987 to 1999. “Ever since he got the job he’s been spending as much time as he can here. He knows the place,” Brest says about the transition. “A lot of people would wait until the first day on the job.”
All signs point to an agenda as bold as his blueprints for reforming legal education. Whatever Kramer does will come out of his concern that “democratic governance in the U.S. is in serious trouble and institutions are not working.” The refrain is familiar to those who have heard his two most recent commencement addresses. In the final address, he told graduates, “The world is deeply troubled. … Challenges like energy, health care, the national debt, joblessness, international peace and stability, and more are huge—and they require a seriousness of purpose and a willingness to take action that the world’s current, feckless leadership is apparently unable to muster.”
Kramer isn’t bashful about how much he hopes the Hewlett Foundation can do during his tenure. “By retirement I want to have prevented global warming and saved democratic government,” he says. “Honestly, those are the goals.” SL