Kenneth Dam, former University provost and Law School scholar, 1932-2022

Legal scholar served as deputy secretary in U.S. departments of Treasury and State

Kenneth Willard Dam, a former University of Chicago provost and longtime Law School professor who served as deputy secretary in the U.S. departments of Treasury and State, died May 31. He was 89.

The Law School’s Max Pam Professor Emeritus of American & Foreign Law, Dam was one of the nation’s foremost scholars in domestic and foreign economic law. He devoted much of his career to public policy, and in addition to his academic and government work, served in top corporate and nonprofit posts, on the boards of numerous organizations, and as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

An alum of the Law School, Dam, JD’57, spent his entire academic career at the University of Chicago. His scholarship was focused on law and economics, and he directed the Law School’s law and economics program for many years.

He was the fourth provost of the University of Chicago, serving from 1980 until 1982, when President Ronald Reagan asked him to serve as deputy to U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, former dean of the Booth School of Business.

“Ken Dam was a brilliant scholar, a devoted public servant, and a gracious colleague,” said Thomas J. Miles, dean of the Law School and the Clifton R. Musser Professor of Law and Economics. “His decades of contributions to the Law School, the University of Chicago, and our nation are deeply appreciated and will be long remembered. On behalf of the entire community, I extend our deepest sympathy to Ken’s family and friends.”

Former University of Chicago President Hanna Holborn Gray, the Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History, under whom Dam served as provost, remembered Dam as “a good friend and a wonderful citizen of the University, always willing to work constructively on its behalf and never claiming credit while doing so much good.”

“He and I worked closely together when he was provost. He loved the job because it allowed him to learn so much about the breadth of the University and its programs, to discover so many interesting people and such a range of ideas, to understand the complex issues that arose every day,” Gray said. “The most fair-minded of men, he brought an admirable calm and exceptional judgment to it all. I was very lucky to have enjoyed two years of this partnership before Ken left to serve as Deputy Secretary of State to George Shultz and further to fulfill his ideal of public service.”

Dam, who was born in Marysville, Kansas, in 1932, grew up on a farm and attended the University of Kansas. After graduating in 1954, he headed to the University of Chicago Law School. After earning his J.D., he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Whittaker then embarked on a broad, decades-long career that would include law firm practice, corporate work, government service and academia.

Dam served as deputy secretary—the second-ranking official—in the Department of the Treasury from 2001 to 2003, and deputy secretary in the Department of State from 1982 to 1985. In 1973, he was executive director of the White House Council on Economic Policy, where he was responsible for coordinating U.S. domestic and international economic policy. From 1971 to 1973, he served as assistant director for national security and international affairs in the Office of Management and Budget.

His academic career began earlier, when he joined the Law School as an assistant professor in 1960. He served as a member of the faculty, with various leaves of absence, for the rest of his life. Dam was named a professor of law in 1964, and the Harold J. and Marion F. Green Professor of International Legal Studies in 1976. He directed the Law School’s law and economics program between 1978 and 1980 and between 1995 and 1999. Between 1992 and 2004, he was the Max Pam Professor of American and Foreign Law (with a leave for government service between 2001 and 2003). In 2004, after returning from the Department of the Treasury, he became a senior lecturer and the Max Pam professor emeritus.

Most of Dam’s academic work centered on law and economics, particularly with respect to international issues. His publications include a number of books, including The GATT: Law and International Economic OrganizationEconomic Policy Beyond the Headlines with George P. Shultz; and The Law-Growth Nexus: The Rule of Law and Economic Development.

“Kenneth Dam’s extraordinary career as a scholar, University provost, and public servant will be rightly celebrated, but what I will remember most are Ken’s personal qualities, his warmth and kindness as a faculty member and mentor,” said Vice Provost Daniel Abebe, the Harold J. and Marion F. Green Professor of Law. “Ken was always generous in sharing the deep wisdom gained from many years of distinguished service, and I am grateful to have been his colleague.”

Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law, knew Dam for more than five decades, beginning when Stone was a student in Dam’s Antitrust class.

“He was a thoughtful and highly respected professor,” Stone said, adding that after he joined the Law School as an assistant professor in 1973, Dam was “a lively and helpful colleague and a brilliant scholar.”

Both Stone and Dam served as provost of the University—Stone from 1993 to 2002—and it was during Stone’s time as dean of the Law School that Dam returned to the faculty after more than a decade in different roles.

“Ken and I had many interesting interactions during the course of his (and my) career,” Stone said. “He was a truly exceptional teacher, colleague and scholar, who represented the very best of our Law School’s values and aspirations.”

Added Douglas Baird, a former dean and the Harry A. Bigelow Distinguished Service Professor of Law:  “A law and economics pioneer, a masterful teacher and a distinguished statesman, Ken Dam was for six decades one of the Law School's closest friends and its deans' wisest counselors.”

Sr. Lect. Richard Epstein, the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Law, said that he and his wife, Eileen, enjoyed a decades-long friendship with Dam and his wife, Marcia, that began shortly after meeting them. Their three children grew up in Hyde Park at roughly the same time as the Dam’s children, Eliot and Charlotte.

“It took only a short period to realize that Ken was a man of great knowledge and judgment, impeccable behavior and a standard of excellence that marked every aspect of his life,” Epstein said. “It was always a great source of pleasure to watch how his ever-adventurous wife, Marcia, brought out the best in the more cautiously minded Ken. It was a pleasure to work with him at the Law School, and a real treat to see the way he negotiated the many pitfalls of university government when he served as provost. Eileen and I extend our best wishes to Marcia, Charlotte and Eliot in this most difficult time. They can be assured that Ken has a secure place in the legacy of the University and in the life of the nation that he served so well for so many years.”

Dam’s other activities include serving as IBM vice president for law and external relations from 1985 to 1992, and as president and chief executive officer of the United Way of America for a six-month period in 1992, when he was chosen to clean up a scandal in that organization and put in place a new system of governance. His law firm practice included two years as an associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York between 1958 and 1960 and various periods of service as of counsel or as a consultant to Kirkland & Ellis between 1961 and 1996.

He had extensive experience as an arbitrator, including five years as the system arbitrator for professional basketball between 1996 and 2001 and again in 2012.

He was an honorary member of the board of the Brookings Institution. He also was a board member of the Committee for Economic Development, a member of the Shadow Financial Regulatory Committee, and chairman of the German-American Academic Council. He was a board member of a number of nonprofit institutions, including the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. He served for 13 years on the board of Alcoa and was a member of the advisory board for BMW of North America for five years in the 1990s.

Dam is survived by his wife of 60 years, Marcia, their son Eliot, daughter Charlotte, and grandchildren Benjamin and Fiona.

—This story was first published by the University of Chicago Law School.