Rachel Harmon, Innovative Criminal Law Scholar, Honored With All-University Teaching Award
University of Virginia School of Law professor Rachel Harmon has been named a recipient of one of this year’s All-University Teaching Awards, marking the seventh time in the past 10 years that a member of the school’s faculty has been honored for their passion and skill in the classroom.
When Harmon started teaching her class Law of the Police in 2011, she would tell her students not to think of it as a practical course, but rather as a critical perspective on the laws and policies that regulate police activity and conduct. But as she and her students delved into the cases, history and commentary that later became her 2021 seminal casebook of the same name, the students had other ideas.
“Students started immediately pushing back and saying, ‘No, we’re going to use this in the real world!’” Harmon said. “So I'm not only trying to teach them doctrine, I’m trying to give them tools to help them change the world.”
Those students have entered a world where the social cost of policing is an issue that is both salient and urgent. Some of her graduates, like Andrew Manns ’17, have taken up the call for change by becoming prosecutors and civil rights attorneys. Others have joined law school faculties and are now teaching the law of the police themselves. Many more are applying their criminal justice learning to pro bono or legislative work.
Harmon, a former federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and a director of the school’s Center for Criminal Justice, is the Harrison Robertson Professor of Law. She joined the UVA Law faculty in 2006.
She is a member of the American Law Institute and serves as an associate reporter for ALI’s project on Principles of the Law of Policing. She regularly advises nonprofits and government actors on issues of policing and the law.
In addition to teaching Law of the Police, Harmon teaches a battery of more conventional criminal justice classes, including criminal law, criminal procedure and courses examining the Supreme Court’s approach to criminal jurisprudence.
Harmon’s courses are a hot commodity at the Law School, and students come into the classes with a wide spectrum of political perspectives and life experiences.
As Dean Risa Goluboff noted in her nomination letter, “These are difficult and controversial subjects. The cases are ripped from the headlines, and they involve deeply troubling facts about violence, racism and discrimination.”
Harmon manages these challenges with singular skill, Goluboff said, and called Harmon’s ability to create space for a free and respectful exchange of ideas about such controversial issues “miraculous.”
Second-year student Juhi Desai described it like this: “Prof. Harmon teaches in such a way that says, ‘Here’s all of the information and experiences I have. What information and experiences do you have? Is there a way to use our combined knowledge to make the world a fairer place?’”
Good trial attorneys can often read faces, and Harmon uses that skill to create a sense of inclusion in her classroom. More than one student said Harmon sometimes calls on people based on a look on their face rather than a raised hand. “She knew that I knew the answer, and told me that she wanted me to feel like I could take up space in her classroom,” wrote Catherine Guerrier ’21, a first-generation student who is now clerking for a federal District Court in Connecticut. “What it did is reinforce to me that I belonged in the seat I occupied.”
Harmon’s emotional intelligence is, in part, rooted in her own humble upbringing. Before she earned degrees from MIT (a bachelor’s in engineering), the London School of Economics (two graduate degrees in political philosophy) and her law degree from Yale, Harmon “grew up as a subsidized-school-lunch kid, unprepared for the norms of elite educational institutions,” she wrote in a statement to the awards committee. She uses a liberal office-hours policy to cultivate a sense of camaraderie and belonging for all students.
Those office hours are, quote, “legendary,” with law students, undergraduates and even alumni found sitting on the floor and spilling out into the hallway to listen, ask questions about cases, and pick her brain for career, academic and even life advice, Manns and others said.
Despite the political and structural obstacles to police reform, Harmon is steadfastly optimistic, and her passion for the work is palpable and infectious. “Professor Harmon has cultivated such a loyal following of students, each of whom was profoundly impacted by her teaching and mentorship, that those students now jump at the opportunity to pay forward a fraction of what we owe her,” Manns wrote.
The Princeton Review’s survey of law students has consistently named UVA Law professors as, collectively, the best in the nation for five consecutive years.
Past UVA Law faculty recipients of the teaching award are Michael Gilbert (2019-20), George S. Geis (2018-19), Leslie Kendrick ’06 (2016-17), Toby Heytens ’00 (2015-16), Gregory Mitchell (2013-14), Michael Collins (2012-13), Goluboff (2010-11), Jim Ryan ’92 (2009-10), Caleb Nelson (2007-08), Rip Verkerke (2006-07), John C. Harrison (2004-05), Barry Cushman (2002-03, Law and History), Kenneth S. Abraham (1999-2000), Anne M. Coughlin (1998-99), Paul G. Mahoney (1997-98), Michael J. Klarman (1996-97) and Pamela S. Karlan (1995-96).
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.