Wearing Harvard Crimson
Robert Iuliano on Larry Summers, life in Cambridge and the university as a corporation
Published in Corporate Counsel Edition® - July 2009 magazine
on June 12, 2009
Updated on June 15, 2009
It’s late October, when Cambridge is the essence of academia. Robert Iuliano, the vice president and general counsel of Harvard University, paces a classroom in the School of Education’s Gutman Library, where he teaches a popular course titled “Higher Education and the Law.” Dressed in a dark suit and appropriate crimson tie, he delivers an ice breaker to the masters and Ph.D. students as they settle into their seats. “I actually did some work today,” he says to laughter.
Over the next two hours, he covers a whirlwind of subjects at the forefront of academia and law—student discipline, academic freedom, race-conscious admissions, sponsored research, faculty tenure and privacy. Iuliano motions to raised hands and reassures the students with such instructions as “Walk me through that.”
Iuliano has been an instructor since 1998, four years after he joined the university’s in-house legal department. “It’s not that different from what I did as a prosecutor,” he says. “I spent a lot of time engaging with people. As a teacher, you do the same thing and get people to think differently than they did before they walked in. One thing that’s sort of fun is to watch from week one, when reading a case seems like the hardest thing imaginable, to where it’s more accessible. And I get to interact with the academic process more directly, and more affirmatively, than I would solely as a lawyer.”
Across campus, Iuliano’s office overlooks the statue of John Harvard, which sits amid a collection of old brick buildings and modern architecture in Harvard Yard. From there, Iuliano oversees the university’s legal issues and 13 lawyers and 11 staff members. “Most of the real work is done by an office of extraordinarily capable lawyers,” he says. “They average about 24 years in the profession and the last 10 at Harvard. They could make a lot more money in private practice, but they’re contributing to something transformative.”
Iuliano’s job is not unlike that of a general counsel to a major corporation. “We’re the third largest private employer in Massachusetts, with a budget of more than $3 billion,” he says. “So we have all the legal issues you’d expect of any other large employer. Student disciplinary cases can have a legal dimension. We’re a landlord and a tenant. We are a generator of intellectual property and a consumer of intellectual property. We do incredible research, which raises a host of legal and policy issues.
“There’s an effort by Harvard to expand its campus into Allston [Mass.], and there are numerous community and real estate issues associated with that. We have tax lawyers who worry about financial issues associated with a nonprofit organization. We have tenure issues and sponsored research issues that are heavily regulatory. We don’t have a ton of litigation. The principal focus of the office is helping Harvard achieve its goals.”
Iuliano grew up next to Cambridge in Watertown, Mass., where his parents exemplified, he says, “a very classic story of America.” Both were the first in their families to graduate from college, and both became teachers—his mother, Mary, at an elementary school, his father, Russell, at a junior high. “The focal point was education, education, education, education and education,” Iuliano says. “We all had to go around the dinner table and say what we did in school that day. Then my dad would pull out a chalkboard, and he would work through a series of math problems. As the youngest of four, I had the benefit of learning algebra when other kids were learning simple addition.”
Sports were also important. “My dad used to teach at West Watertown Junior High School, and the big football game in Watertown was West versus East. I was captain of the West team,” Iuliano says. “My dad was up in the stands speaking with some of his old buddies who used to teach at the West Junior High School. One of them was Peter Hall, who was the football coach at Middlesex [a private school]. He wanted me to look at Middlesex.
“Now, I’m a ninth-grade kid who really wants to stay where he is, but I applied. Once I got into Middlesex, my dad offered the following line: ‘I’m going to let you make the decision, but if you make the wrong decision, I’ll make it for you.’ I can’t tell you whether I made the decision or he made it for me, but it was clearly right.”
Iuliano was named captain of the football team coached by Hall’s successor, Frank Guerra, and wrestled in the winter. “It’s a cliché, but sports build character. And resiliency. You don’t always win. Sometimes you get pinned, and you have to get off the mat.”
Middlesex prepared him for college at Harvard, where he was a government concentrator (HarvardSpeak for major), joined the Institute of Politics and won election to the Town Meeting in Watertown. During summers he interned for Rep. Tip O’Neill, the House majority leader, and worked on the successful re-election campaign for state Rep. Sal Ciccarelli. He moved on to the University of Virginia School of Law in 1983, where he won the Labor Law prize and was editor in chief of the law review, which he published eight times a year with articles covering some 1,600 pages.
After law school, Iuliano clerked for Levin Campbell, chief justice of the 1st Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. “You go through law school from a theoretical perspective and then find yourself clerking on the court of appeals,” he says. “In one respect it’s very familiar, because you’re dealing with distilled principles of law. But on the other hand, it’s fundamentally practical, because you’re dealing with real-life problems. My judge was a wonderful teacher. I deeply respect his judicial philosophy, because he was very much of the view that you don’t decide anything that you don’t have to decide. You’re going to make mistakes if you begin to make judgments on issues that aren’t squarely presented. So you give these issues a chance to percolate. He was really a very good teacher about what the courts do and the consequences that the law can have on people’s lives.”
From 1987 to 1991, Iuliano specialized in labor law and litigation for the Boston firm Choate Hall & Stewart. “When you do that for a big firm, your clients can’t afford to pay for large teams of lawyers, and you end up getting a fair amount of independence and autonomy,” he says.
Then he took a job he had been pointing to since law school: a post at the U.S. Attorney’s office. “I was mainly in the drug unit,” he says. “Two weeks into my tenure, we tried six or seven of the most culpable defendants among 50 people who had taken over the Orchard Park housing development and were selling drugs there 24 hours a day. They were doing serious damage to the community, not only because of drugs but the host of violence that was around them. The sense of accomplishment [from getting convictions] and figuring out how the system works was quite interesting.”
Though he loved what he was doing, it was hard to turn down an offer from Harvard. “I have an instinct toward breadth over specialization,” he says. “And the single greatest attraction in some respects of this job is the incredible breadth of the issues coupled with the mission of the place.”
In 1994, he moved to the university’s in-house department, where he handled numerous legal issues, including student affairs, tenure, scientific misconduct, litigation, and labor and employment law. In 2001, then-president Lawrence Summers (who was ousted in 2006 and is now director of the National Economic Council) promoted Iuliano to general counsel. “I very much enjoyed working with President Summers,” says Iuliano. “He approached problems with an intellectual rigor that was rewarding and that helped ensure that we were thinking about problems from multiple dimensions. I have been equally fortunate to work with President [Drew Gilpin] Faust since her appointment in 2007. She is a remarkable leader with a keen analytical mind, a clear vision for Harvard and an enduring commitment to the vital role played by higher education.”
In addition to running the legal department, Iuliano advises the president, provost and deans, and oversees the university police department. “Bob’s been a great adviser to me,” says Harvard’s chief of police and director of security, Bud Riley. “Because he came from the U.S. Attorney’s office, he understands my world. A few years ago, the Harvard Crimson sued the university police and me to open our records. Since we deal with medical issues, students and the right to privacy, and since we write detailed reports, we felt doing so would be traumatic. Bob impressed me with his knowledge of civil liberties, the need to know and the right to privacy.” The Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office denied the Crimson petition, and in 2006 the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled in the administration’s favor.
The following year, Iuliano defended Harvard in a $120 million lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice and the United States Agency for International Development, negotiating a $26.5 million settlement. At issue were alleged conflict-of-interest charges concerning a faculty member and a former project manager at the former Harvard Institute for International Development, who both made investments in Russia while advising the Russian government on transitioning to capitalism. The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts cleared the university of all allegations except breach of contract, which occurred without its knowledge. In a statement, Iuliano called the agreement on the five-year case a “mutually acceptable resolution. We take very seriously our responsibilities to manage federal projects and funds appropriately.”
Alan Stone, former VP of government, community and public affairs at Harvard, marvels at Iuliano’s role in formulating the university’s position after the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers filed a joint lawsuit against the Google Books Library Project. Iuliano appointed one of his associates to be the university’s lead attorney, while he shuttled among faculty, administrators and library officials. In the end, Harvard said its decision to participate in the project—which is designed to digitize print materials for public use—was contingent upon the final details surrounding the $125 million settlement. Stone, who participated in discussions about the deal, says, “Bob’s a great guy to work with: honorable, funny, professional, hardworking and intelligent.”
Another contentious issue crept up when Harvard Medical School received a poor grade from the American Medical Students Association for its ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Last year, drug companies gave Harvard $8.6 million for basic research and $3 million for continuing education. Harvard responded by enlisting a 19-member faculty-student committee to evaluate its conflict-of-interest policies. Iuliano says that the appearance of conflict may be as damaging as a conflict itself.
With the downturn in the economy, such financial issues are even more precarious. The university’s endowment, for example, recently declined by several billion dollars. “Harvard [is considering] the consequences of a dramatically altered global financial environment,” Iuliano says, “as it has in the past.” This has translated to a salary freeze and delayed expansion of the Allston complex, among other repercussions.
One entity that isn’t suffering as acutely is the Broad Institute, “a collaboration involving Harvard and MIT, among others, focusing on advancing knowledge about the human genome,” he says. The institute is currently researching the cancer genome, diabetes genetics, immune circuit and microbial sequencing projects. “Eli Broad and the Broad Foundation recently announced a further $400 million gift to endow the Institute permanently,” he continues. “I worked closely with my counterpart at MIT, as well as with key stakeholders at Harvard, on the project. The Broad does remarkable work, and the ability to help it advance its mission was very rewarding-and representative of how working as counsel to the university can be in service of issues that are important to society.”
John Harvard would be proud.