BY MIKE WISER
University President Lawrence Summers couldn’t even finish his sentence Thursday before students who had gathered in the Ropes Gray room began to applaud. “I’m proud to announce that Elena Kagan,” he began before clapping from the crowd forced him to pause. After a minute he finally finished, “will be the next Dean of Harvard Law School.”
Kagan, who will become the school’s first female dean on July 1 of this year, told the crowd, “I am honored. I am humbled. And I am thrilled, ecstatic, exhilarated, overjoyed.”
Harvard Law School, Kagan told the audience, is the “New York City of law schools.” She explained that coming from New York that is “about the best compliment I could give to a place.”
Kagan did not outline any clear goals for her tenure as dean, but in her statement she said, “Harvard once again has the opportunity to define excellence in legal education.”
She also told the crowd that although Harvard may be the Big Apple of law schools, “We can’t be complacent.”
Kagan added that “All of us have critical roles to play in this endeavor.”
A Meteoric Career
Kagan has taught administrative law, constitutional law, and civil procedure at Harvard for the last four years and was named a full professor in the fall of 2001. Before Harvard, she taught at the University of Chicago where she became a faculty member in the early 1990s.
Kagan served as a White House advisor for the Clinton administration, before coming to Harvard in 1999. One magazine article in 1998 labeled her the administration’s “wonderwonk” for her role in the (ultimately unsuccessful) tobacco settlement negotiations.
Summers explained, “There is no one who is a sharper or clearer thinker on a whole range of legal issues.”
When Kagan was first appointed a visiting professor at the Law School, she had an appointment to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit pending before the United States Senate. The Senate declined to vote on her nomination, which expired in the fall of 2000.
Still, Kagan said that the job of Dean of Harvard Law School was her first choice. “There is no place I’d rather be. No job I’d rather have,” she said Thursday.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Kagan added “I’m grateful to the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
On campus Kagan is known as a popular, but tough Socratic professor who is quick both to learn students’ names and to challenge them in class. She was consistently among the list mentioned as possible replacements for Clark.
Clark: Fourteen Years as Dean
Kagan said that the introduction of law colleges and smaller sections were part of Clark’s legacy, which was the “greatest change in students’ education experience in some time.”
President Summer’s also praised Clark’s service to the school. “No school could wish for a more dedicated and able leader,” he said of Clark. He told the audience that Clark’s return to teaching and scholarship “will be a very great gift to all of us.”
Clark announced in November that he would be stepping down as Dean after 14 years as the head of the Law School. Among other accomplishments, Clark has been credited with expanding the school’s Low Income Protection Plan and with a renovating the school’s library.
A Critical Time for HLS
Kagan’s appointment comes as the University is deciding whether to move the Law School to a new location. As the former chair of the Law School’s “Locational Options Committee,” Kagan will be as familiar as anyone about the issues surrounding the potential move to Allston.
In addition to the potential for a long term move to Allston, Kagan will also be charged with implementing a master plan that was designed under Clark’s reign and finalized two years ago. The plan calls for creating law colleges out of what are now the seven first year sections, increasing the number of faculty, and creating new facilities to house the new faculty and support staff.
Even more immediately, Kagan will find herself tasked this summer with launching a new capital campaign to strengthen the Law School’s coffers. The start of the capital campaign was cited by Clark in November as one of the reasons why he felt it was an opportune time for him to step down.
A Controversial Process
In introducing President Summers, Dean Clark said that he was impressed by the way the President had handled the selection process. He told the audience that no President had ever done more in choosing a dean and that he was “engaged almost full time” in the search. Clark added that, “He deserves the Faye Diploma.”
However, not everyone has been satisfied by the process as was evidenced by one student who attended the announcement with a gag in his mouth.
Since the selection process began, both faculty and students have criticized the process for not relying on more input from faculty and students. Summers has primarily relied on a committee that he appointed as well as input he received from e-mails and at a town hall meeting.
Some faculty have complained that they never had a chance to have input into who should be on the dean selection committee.
“There are some who would say that it is better to trust one enlightened President than a whole bunch of people who, given the stereotypes of professors, are not much good at running anything. I understand that. I don’t agree with it,” Professor Richard Parker told The RECORD in February. (See “Faculty being left out of dean selection process” 02/06/03)
Some students attending a forum designed to inform Summers of student opinion on the dean selection process were also concerned that their views were not being heard. (See “Summers draws fire from students” 03/13/03 )
Summers defended the process Thursday, saying that he had read hundreds of e-mails and letters from members of the Law School community and had learned a lot about the school.
However controversial the process that led to her selection may have been, it is unlikely that the controversy will be long remembered. The challenge now is for Kagan to prove to the Law School that she has what it takes to be dean and the vision to lead the school to Allston and beyond.
[This article did not appear in the printed edition of the paper. It was posted on Thursday, April 3, 2003.]