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Professor Ken Vandevelde’s Sabbatical in Washington D.C.

May 16, 2014

Professor Ken Vandevelde leaving the West Wing of the White House
Professor Ken Vandevelde leaving the West Wing of the White House

Working for the White House seemed to Professor Ken Vandevelde like the next logical step in his career. And, since January, he has been doing precisely that while on a semester-long leave from TJSL.

“Before joining the Thomas Jefferson faculty,” he explains, “I worked for several years at the State Department on a variety of tasks, including the negotiation of international economic agreements. At the law school, I teach a course in that area of the law and have written three books about it. With the passage of time, however, my personal experience in the field had become dated. The Executive Office of the President is where the action is right now in this field and that is where I needed to be, if I wanted to stay on top of the subject.”

The timing of his leave has been fortuitous. “President Obama,” Professor Vandevelde notes, “is presiding over one of the most ambitious programs of economic treaty negotiations since the late 1940s, when the United States and its allies created the current international economic order. This is a wonderful time to be involved.”

The United States is negotiating two major regional agreements, one with the entire European Union and the other with about a dozen Pacific Rim countries. It has also launched bilateral negotiations with some critically important countries, including China and India.

Professor Vandevelde is involved in all of these treaty negotiations as well as others and is working on a variety of policy questions raised by the negotiations. “Because the Chinese political and economic system is so different than ours, the negotiations with China have raised a number of novel issues,” he observes. “The same is true of the negotiations with the European Union, which shares much with us politically and economically, but is negotiating on behalf of a diverse group of countries. Further, the Europeans are used to being the dominant partner in their bilateral negotiations, as is the United States, and so the negotiating dynamic with the EU will be different than in many earlier U.S. treaty negotiations.”

One of the benefits of his time in Washington is the opportunity to observe the Obama administration up close. “I am really struck,” he says, “by the thoughtfulness and intellectual seriousness of the top policymakers and by the emphasis on finding the right balance among competing objectives. I got into a discussion of capital controls with an official at the Treasury Department and we ended up exchanging articles from economic journals supporting our respective points of view. There have been times in the past when policy was much more ideologically driven. There are a lot of people in this field who operate from a single ideological perspective, but I see the Obama administration as taking a much more considered approach.” 

The question that he is most commonly asked about his work at the White House is how it came about. “I owe it all to my books,” he replies. “Our negotiators were very familiar with my books and, after I notified them that I had the opportunity to take a leave from TJSL, they invited me to join them. When I started work the first day, I was delighted to notice copies of my books sitting around the office. Nothing is more satisfying to me as a legal scholar than to see my research actually being used by those who make the law.” He recounts walking into the negotiations with China and seeing the Chinese negotiators holding a copy of one of his books. 

Professor Vandevelde believes that the opportunity to move periodically into the world of practice is invaluable for law faculty. “Those of us who teach at professional schools need to maintain our professional skills,” he notes. “I practiced law for 10 years before beginning my academic career, which is unusually long for a law professor. Even so, it was important to me, after teaching for a while, to return for a time to legal practice. We on the faculty need to be able to speak to students from experience and that experience needs to be updated periodically.”

”I have been very fortunate,” he continues. “The people with whom I work are extraordinarily capable and the quality of their work is second to none. And, of course, Washington, D.C., is the center of the international economic law universe. I have enjoyed tremendously the opportunity to practice again in that setting.” 

The benefits of this experience for the law school will be many. As Professor Vandevelde explains, “The direct involvement in the negotiations and the policy making will bring a wealth of new material into my course on international investment law and arbitration. It will also ensure that my future publications in this field have value for students, scholars, practitioners and policy makers. The economy continues to globalize and increasingly business will be conducted across borders. We can take pride in knowing that TJSL offers our students training in international economic law that is at the cutting-edge.”