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Lunch with Mimi: Hari Osofsky, dean of Penn State Law and the School of International Affairs

by on March 01, 2018 10:26 AM

Guided by a commitment to leave the world better than she found it, Hari Osofsky is a leading scholar and contributor to public policy work on energy transition and climate change. She became dean of Penn State Law and the School of International Affairs in July 2017. In her role, she partners with faculty, staff, and boards of advisors for both schools, overseeing academics, student admissions, recruitment, human resources, strategic initiatives, and a range of other administrative issues.

Prior to coming to Penn State, she was the Robins Kaplan professor of law, faculty director of the Energy Transition Lab, and director of the Joint Degree Program in Law, Science and Technology at the University of Minnesota Law School. She was also on the faculty of the Conservation Biology Graduate Program, an adjunct professor in the Department of Geography, Environment & Society, and a fellow with the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.

Born in Philadelphia, she grew up all across the U.S. from Boston to Kansas to New Orleans. She was a double major in philosophy and studies in the environment at Yale College before going on to earn her J.D. from Yale Law School. From 2001 to 2002, she served as a Yale-China legal education fellow and visiting scholar at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, teaching U.S. civil rights law and working collaboratively with her Chinese colleagues to launch the school’s first legal clinic.

In 2013, she received a Ph.D. in geography from the University of Oregon just after her promotion to full professor at the University of Minnesota. Osofsky also taught at Washington and Lee University School of Law, University of Oregon School of Law, and Whittier Law School.

 Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Osofsky at HiWay Pizza West to discuss what she hopes to accomplish as dean, the partnerships and programs that will help achieve her goals, and how the broader State College community can benefit from the university-wide collaboration.

Mimi: From the day I met you I wanted to interview you because you’re so engaging. In preparation for this interview, in your background information, you said, “There is no other university of the caliber of Penn State that has this opportunity to reshape legal and international affairs education.” Let’s start by you telling me why you feel that way.

Hari: First, let me start by saying what an honor and a pleasure it is to have the chance to talk with you. I appreciated your warm welcome to Penn State and to be able to see your wonderful contributions here. We’re at a moment right now of profound social change in which technology, globalization, and the need for cross-cutting knowledge are fundamentally changing not just society, but the practice of law, who needs legal services, and what international affairs look like. There’s no university in the country of the caliber of Penn State that has this opportunity to provide legal education and international affairs education for a changing society.

Mimi: What is the most dramatic thing you’ve introduced toward this goal since your arrival?

Hari: The most dramatic thing is asking the questions: Where is legal education? Where is the law profession going? Who needs legal services and information? Where is international affairs going? How can we craft an educational program and interdisciplinary research projects that really meet that need? World Campus at Penn State is one of the leading online education programs in the country. We’re developing a pilot program focusing on people such as business executives or health care administrators who might need a little law in order to do their jobs better, but don’t necessarily want to get a J.D. or master’s degree. The idea would be that we create short online courses to give people very specific knowledge they need. For example, the first of these courses that we’re piloting is focused on patent law and how to do a patent application, which is absolutely crucial to someone who wants to do an entrepreneurial project. In addition, law schools have a moral and ethical obligation to prepare their students for their licensing exam and to help launch them into fulfilling careers.

Mimi: That’s the basics.

Hari: Absolutely. Another piece of our technology initiative is a program called Externships Everywhere. The idea is that students can go anywhere in the world and use the advanced distance learning technology in our building to beam back in for their externship class. Similarly, we’re creating a Legal-Tech Virtual Lab so that we train law students in the technology that they’re going to face in practice, introduce students across Penn State to the legal issues surrounding emerging technology, and develop innovative immersive content for our courses. We’re doing that in collaboration with colleges and campuses, as well as university-wide initiatives around immersive technology and artificial intelligence.

Mimi: Tell me what you’re doing in the community that ties into the overall collaboration, particularly in this whole area of startups and entrepreneurship.

Hari: Penn State Law is really excited to be partnering with Invent Penn State. As you know, Penn State has created these LaunchBoxes, incubators all around the state. Penn State Law has these innovative clinics – an entrepreneur assistance clinic and an intellectual property clinic. The idea is to provide those entrepreneurs with legal assistance they need in order to develop their projects. We also have an immigration clinic, which has been playing such a crucial service role to both the Penn State and broader State College community in explaining our rapidly changing immigration law and helping people understand it. In addition, we have a family law clinic that works a lot with domestic violence victims. The role that our clinics in the LaunchBox are playing with the entrepreneurs is to help them navigate the complex legal issues around starting a business, and also around making sure that the intellectual property that they create with their idea is properly protected.

Mimi: That’s a big one. And this is all done without any cost to the startup.

Hari: Exactly. To me, this is the wonderful thing about clinical legal education, it gives students an experience of really helping people in meaningful ways. It helps the students prepare for practice and opens them up to public service careers, and, at the same time, provides a social service.

Mimi: When the university partners with the community in LaunchBox and all these places all over the commonwealth, there is opportunity to impact the economy of all these communities including our own, but also to train the law students who get real experience. It’s a win, win, win.

Hari: It’s a win, win, win. We’ve talked about the clinics but we haven’t talked about the street law program where our law students go into high schools and introduce high school students to basic legal concepts. One of the things that is really important to me is that we be partners in the university’s efforts to create pipelines of opportunity for our students. We want to not only help them succeed as undergraduates, but also open the doorways to graduate education. One of my priorities, and I’ve been collaborating with the commonwealth chancellors on this, is to really think about how both Penn State Law and the School of International Affairs can help students be exposed to this as a potential career path for them.

Mimi: You came into the legal profession in an era when it was starting to be more open to women. It seems to me it took a long time for the profession to really welcome women.

Hari: We are clearly at an interesting moment in time in our national dialogue about gender. In many ways I think of myself as part of the generation after the path-breaking generation. People like the judge that I worked for, Dorothy Nelson, really carved the way for my generation of women. But a lot of the issues – and this isn’t just applicable to gender but also raises broader diversity questions – in some ways the hardest piece of getting to equality is after you get rid of the discriminatory laws, how you actually move forward in all sorts of subtle ways as a society. And we’re still working on those, from making sure that women have the same kind of mentoring pathways to workplaces figuring out good ways to deal with supporting people when they have families, and work-life balance. There’s a whole complicated set of issues around gender in the profession that go beyond these questions of sexual harassment and assault that have been coming up in the “Me Too” conversations.

Mimi: A lot of them are still a work in progress. This is totally off the subject, but I’m fascinated by the names of your children. They obviously have been named with great thought. One is Oz, and the other is Scarlet.

Hari: Oz was named after two of my husband’s relatives. We also liked that the word oz, in Hebrew, means strength. And then we liked the magical connotations of the Wizard of Oz. Scarlet was born in Virginia, and it’s spelled differently than Scarlett O’Hara, but it was a little bit of our nod to her being born in Virginia. She’s named after two of my relatives as well. And then it also turns out my husband used to be in the film industry and both The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind were made in the same year.

Mimi: How have your kids adjusted to Happy Valley?

Hari: They’ve been adjusting really well, each in their own ways. One of the things we’ve just been wowed by is the strength of the public schools here. The resources in our schools are really amazing.

Mimi: You chose to come to Penn State University’s law school in University Park. What made you do it?

Hari: Everybody told me that when I found the right school I would know. I was really skeptical of that until I came to Penn State. I instantly fell in love with Penn State. It was partly the uncanny substantive fit, but I was just so impressed by the sort of energy and ambitious spirit that I found at every level here. The sense of community at Penn State is like nothing that I have ever seen at any institution before.

Mimi: It really feels good to hear that.

Hari: I’ve actually spent a lot of time reflecting on what makes Penn State’s community so special, and I think it’s the tradition that Penn State has of being a gateway to opportunity. People come here from rural communities, limited means, first-generation college graduates, and they get a great education, work really hard, and have the embrace of the Penn State family that opens doors they never imagined were possible. To me that is the Penn State story and why people love this university so much.

Mimi: It is a global community. How is the international piece coming along?

Hari: The School of International Affairs is a decade old now and just has been growing in remarkable ways. We’re lucky to have a very dynamic and energetic director of the school, Scott Gartner, who I partner very closely with. It has a very high employment success rate – over 90 percent. What makes our School of International Affairs unique is so many schools of international affairs are really rigid. They have a very carefully prescribed curriculum and then students tend to all go into similar career paths, for example, the foreign service. One of the things, when I sat down with students when I was interviewing for this job, that became very clear that was special about our School of International Affairs is that it’s designed to be really flexible and to take full advantage of being at one of the world’s great research universities. We have a year of required courses, but then our students can specialize in any way they want. They can take full advantage of the resources at Penn State such as study abroad, and that allows them to go in to a diverse set of careers.

Mimi: In our conversation, I pick up your passion, if you will, for diversity, equity, equality. How do we work that whole thing into the educational process as we hope that future generations may have broader acceptance of people whoever they are? The current climate in our country has stirred up all sorts of emotions among all sorts of people. How do we spread a sense of responsibility to create better human beings? It has nothing to do with politics; it has a lot to do with human dignity.

Hari: Universities are crucial places in our society for having dialogue across difference. One of the great struggles we have right now is that people are having trouble talking to each other. Part of the answer to your question is about the role that universities can play in convening these conversations and providing independent research. But another part of it is to focus directly on this question of diversity. Penn State has an initiative called We Are All In, focusing on these questions of diversity. How do you make sure that you’re creating pipelines of opportunity and recruiting, whether it’s for students, faculty, or staff, from a diverse enough pool? And then once people get there, how do you create a climate in which they feel supported and comfortable?

Mimi: Speaking of climate, when I was an undergraduate, decades ago, we had one female dean. Through the years we’ve been inching up, and two of the women deans are retiring this June, sadly. It’s an interesting climate for women deans at Penn State. To what extent do you work together?

Hari: Around half of the deans at Penn State are women. It’s a very collegial and collaborative group of deans, men and women. One of the things I feel luckiest about at Penn State is that collaborative environment. The women deans have breakfast together before the leadership meetings, so before the Council of Academic Deans meetings and before the Academic Leadership Council meetings. The women leaders here have been wonderful sources of wisdom and guidance for me as I have moved into this role and have been learning about Penn State.

Mimi: Well, thank you for coming to Happy Valley. You’re full of information, ideas, and enthusiasm, and it’s been a pleasure to talk with you.

Hari: Thank you for your warm welcome. It’s been a real pleasure to talk with you as well. I feel incredibly lucky to be here.





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