Martha Minow
300th Anniversary University Professor, Harvard University

A Scholar and Administrator Attuned: Saluting William Alford

The English verb “attune” means “to bring into harmony” or “to make aware or responsive.”  These may not be qualities typically associated with a lawyer, legal scholar, or university administrator, yet they are exemplified by the work of William (Bill) Alford across his career thus far. Notably, in his seventeen years leading Harvard Law School’s Graduate Program and International Legal Studies Program, and even longer service as Director of East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard, Bill has infused these initiatives with kindness, generosity, intellectual rigor, and his distinctive ability to weave meaningful connections across diverse nations and communities.

All of these qualities are further illustrated by his work as the founding Chair of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability which provides pro bono services on issues of disability in many nations, including China, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Implementing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in nations that do not embrace a framework of individual rights could create genuine difficulties. Yet, illustrating attunement to cultural differences, Bill and his colleague Michael Stein effectively work to enable individuals and groups and especially persons with disabilities and their representative organizations to undertake informed human rights advocacy. This example surfaces three elements that continually inform Bill’s work: 1) insight from comparative study; 2) deep engagement with people; and 3) humility and judgment.

I. Insights from Comparative Studies

Bill is of course one of the world’s leading experts on Chinese law and legal history. Just as his scholarship draws insights through comparative work, his academic leadership reflects curiosity, respect, and analysis revolving around contrasting cultures and national traditions. In a lecture he delivered at Harvard upon his appointment as the inaugural Jerome A. and Joan L. Cohen Professor of East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, Bill described comparative legal studies and another kind of comparison: learning from the past to understand the present.[1]

His classic contribution in To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization moves from the initial recognition of a clash in international trade law between Western and Chinese conceptions of intellectual property law.[2] The book’s immersion in historical, cultural, economic, and political traditions identifies different world views around property ownership, profit as a motive, as well as contrasting perspectives on cultural and political pride and power. Finding comparisons within comparisons, the book also affords lessons from internal political developments toward Western-style intellectual property law in Taiwan that contrast with less successful external pressures for China to move in that direction.

In Raising the Bar: The Emerging Legal Profession in East Asia (Harvard East Asian Legal Studies 2007), Bill and his fellow editors and contributors trace dramatic growth in legal professional work in China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia.[3] By considering these varied settings, the work illuminates distinctive relationships between law and state authorities and between law and historically disadvantaged individuals and communities. The essays show nuanced attention to similarities and differences and to contrasts that are not even well-captured by those categories. In these and other scholarly efforts, Bill displays the resistance to ethnocentrism and awareness of the impact of perspective and the opportunities for self-reflection that characterize the promise of comparative studies.[4]   His approach embodies this recognition, well-stated by author Louis L’Amour: “Much of the study of history is a matter of comparison, of relating what was happening in one area to what was happening elsewhere, and what had happened in the past. To view a period in isolation is to miss whatever message it has to offer.”[5]

Bill’s popular classes (Comparative Law: Why Law? Lessons from China; and Comparative Law Workshop) feature immersion in alternative settings and deepening attention to assumptions, often unstated, about points of departure. This approach also guides the many workshops, gatherings, and informal conversations supported by the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies with heightened elements of fun and humor. Attracting the most talented individuals from around the world to advanced legal education, the Graduate Program at Harvard Law School does not only pursue research and leadership through law, it also builds a network—during schooling and beyond—of extraordinary individuals who become leading scholars, lawyers, and political figures around the world. The strength of that network connecting students across generations owes more to Bill than can be fully expressed.

During his time as vice dean, Bill conceived, designed, and constructed rich linkages with universities in other countries. These connections make it possible for hundreds of Harvard students to study and work abroad and for students and faculty from other nations to spend time at Harvard. Expanding the graduate program to regularly bring students from more than seventy nations to study at Harvard, while maintaining its policy of need-blind admission and need-based financial aid, Bill is devoted to creating opportunities and nurturing talented individuals, which has created the largest concentration of sub-Saharan African law students in any school in North America. Year after year, students arriving from nations that had never sent any to Harvard Law School found a welcoming and congenial community of scholars eager to learn from one another with the curiosity and respect exemplified by Bill Alford.

II. Deep Engagement with People

Year after year, Bill engages deeply with individual students, visiting scholars, faculty colleagues, staff, and others. Providing a sounding board, gently probing their ideas, vigorously forging connections and opportunities, and quietly assisting with personal problems, Bill becomes the go-to person in so many people’s lives. He remembers details about people’s families and passions and circles back with more ideas and connections. His devotion to his wonderful family is mirrored in his capacity to make others feel like members of his family.

When I was dean of the Law School, I witnessed these qualities in Bill over and over, notably, including with alumni in gatherings around the world. Walking with Bill down the street in Beijing, in Taipei, in Hong Kong, and in Seoul is like walking with a rock star. Some of the fame comes from his work co-founding the first academic program in the People’s Republic of China on American law and the first national exchange program to bring Chinese students to the United States for legal education; some from the trust he has earned by both the governments of the United States and governments of other nations; as well as frequent requests for advice from multilateral organizations, foundations, civic groups and nongovernmental organizations, law firms and businesses. Bill’s public service work connects him with efforts around human rights, law reform, and the legal profession, and allows him to create deep ties with new colleagues. Bill brings these connections and resources back to Harvard and also models for students, visiting fellows, staff, and colleagues the power of allies and friends.

He is known and admired by so many people. His honorary degrees, distinguished lectureships, and awards are too many to recount. He is humble about all of this and about so much else. The level of respect and affection he has earned goes well beyond recognition of his knowledge and wisdom. It emanates from more profound appreciation for his ability and commitment to connect on a personal, human level.

III. Humility and Judgment

Bill does not carry expectations of being treated as a “rock star.”  Indeed, he tends to dismiss recognition of his own accomplishments and qualities. This humility may well be Bill’s superpower. It lies behind his approach to others, his comparative study, and his openness to learning.

Yet Bill is not lacking in self-respect nor in the ability to make rigorous and vigorous judgments. In assessing scholarship and giving students feedback, Bill may be kind but he highlights problems and makes clear what could and should be better. In reviewing proposed academic initiatives, funding sources, and policies, Bill is stringent in his judgments of quality, integrity, and risks. As a colleague and as a friend, I am so grateful to be able to turn to Bill for his unfaltering good judgment.

Having humility allows for respectful communication and acknowledgment of potential mistakes or misunderstandings even in the course of making judgments. But humility should not entail suspension of judgment or doubt about the ability to judge. As the common saying goes, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”

As Bill steps down from his enormous duties as vice dean for the Graduate Program, he will have more time for his vital scholarship and mentoring, his international pro bono and advising work, and for his ongoing leadership of the East Asian Legal Studies Program and the Harvard Law School Project on Disability. How terrific that his many communities will still benefit from his insights from comparisons, his engagement with people, and his powerful combination of humility and judgment.

[1] See Learning from the Past to Appreciate the Present, Harv. L. Today (Dec. 19, 2018),

[2] See William P. Alford, To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization (1995).

[3] See Harv. E. Asian Legal Stud., Raising the Bar: The Emerging Legal Profession in East Asia (William P. Alford ed., 2007).

[4] See Gunter Frankenberg, Critical Comparisons: Re-Thinking Comparative Law, 26 Harv. Int’l L.J. 411, 439 (1985); see also Vicki C. Jackson, Ambivalent Resistance and Comparative Constitutionalism: Opening up the Conversation on “Proportionality,” Rights and Federalism1 U. Pa. J. Const. L. 583 (1999).

[5] Louis L’Amour, Education of a Wandering Man 167 (1990).