BY MIKE WISER
University President Lawrence Summers couldn’t even finish his sentence last 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, Summers 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.” She added that, “Harvard once again has the opportunity to define excellence in legal education.”
Kagan also told the crowd that although Harvard may be the Big Apple of law schools, “We can’t be complacent…All of us have critical roles to play in this endeavor.”
A Vision for the Future
Speaking to The RECORD yesterday, Kagan said that it might be time for the Law School to reconsider the way law is taught.
“I think we ought to give a serious look at the essential structure of a law school education,” Kagan said. “The essential structure is similar to what it was many, many decades ago. The legal world is facing new challenges, we need to make sure the way we teach is consonant with the changes in the world. We have to be sure we’re preparing students as best we can and at the same time that we’re making students eager and excited to go out into the profession.”
Kagan also said the school could do more to encourage students and faculty to work together.
“I think we can do better in creating and structuring ways students and faculty can engage in intellectual colloquy, to learn from each other, and as a result, to really do the best, most important work they’re capable of doing,” she said.
Kagan said that the school should be working to connect legal education with the challenges faced by students after they graduate. She also said that the school should encourage students to do more public service.
“It’s important that we acquaint students with the kind of public service opportunities that are available in all kinds of forums and we convey the importance of this as part of what it means to be a legal professional,” she said.
As dean, Kagan also said that she would supervise the hiring of more faculty. “Now especially, we’d like to continue to decrease our student/faculty ratio and that means hiring more faculty,” she said.
Still, Kagan said that the core of the school’s mission would remain teaching and scholarship. “The central part of what a school ought to be doing is to create absolute excellence in teaching and scholarship, setting the highest standards. Honestly, everything else is secondary to that,” she said.
A Meteoric Career
Kagan has taught administrative law, constitutional law and civil procedure at HLS for the past four years and was named a full professor in the fall of 2001. Before HLS, 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, who served as Secretary of the Treasury at the time, told the audience there were lots of people in the Clinton Administration who thought they were smart. But, he said, “She is really smart. She is really smart…. 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 of people mentioned as possible replacements for Clark.
Clark: Fourteen Years as Dean
Kagan, who first came to the Law School as a student in 1983, told the audience that she was a student in Dean Clark’s corporations class. Eighteen years later, Kagan said Thursday that Clark had left the school “on a very secure foundation.”
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.”
Summers 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 renovating Langdell 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.
With a move to Allston looking likely, Kagan could find that she will spend a good part of the first years of her tenure on projects not of her own choosing. Among the more challenging aspects of a potential move to Allston would be convincing wary faculty and alumni that the move is in the best interests of the school.
Kagan told The RECORD yesterday that the decision of whether or not the Law School would move would be a decision for Summers.
“You like to think we should determine our own fate, but there is a university and the University has multiple interests. And those have to be balanced and accommodated,” she said.
In addition to the potential for a long term move to Allston, Kagan will 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.
On top of all that, Kagan said that she hopes to continue to teach, although probably with a lighter load. “I love teaching and I get great energy from teaching. It uses up a few hours in the day, but it also energizes me,” she said.
Kagan added, “I think it’s important as a dean to maintain connections with students, to understand what students are thinking about. And you can do that witho
ut teaching, but teaching is obviously a very good way to do that.”
A Controversial Process
However, not everyone has been satisfied by the process, as was evidenced by 3L Gary Slossberg, LSC Treasurer and a member of Diversity In Education Now, a coalition of students who hoped that diversity issues would be addressed in the selection process. In protest of a lack of transparency in the process, Slossberg attended the rally with a gag in his mouth.
Since the selection process began, 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.
“I was trying to express my view that students had effectively been gagged since the beginning of the process,” Slossberg said.
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,” Prof. 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 Kagan’s 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.
Even Slossberg said that he approved of Summers’ selection for dean.
“I think she was a great choice. Out of all the names I heard, she is the one I would have chosen,” he said. “I just think the pool might have been wider if more voices were included in the process.”
Kagan refused to comment on any aspect of the selection process.
Jonathan Lamberson and Jonas Blank contributed to the reporting of this story.