Without a doubt, last Thursday was a great day for the Law School. President Summers had not even finished introducing Prof. Elena Kagan as the next dean of the Law School, before the crowd erupted in applause. Kagan is popular with both students and faculty and most think that she has what the top job takes. While national media focused on the fact that Kagan was the school’s first female dean, neither students nor faculty were particularly surprised by the choice. Many said she was the best person for the job.
Still, the process has not been without controversy. Many in the Law School community have expressed concern about the way that the process was handled. According to the critics, the process did not give students and faculty enough say in deciding upon the school’s new dean.
There is some merit to this criticism. The faculty did not appoint their own advisory committee and a student forum on the appointment seemed to come late in the process. In the end though, the decision was Summers’ and there are few who would criticize his choice. Even a student who sat gagged at the announcement in protest admitted that he liked Kagan’s appointment.
There is something that Kagan can learn from the controversy. As dean, Kagan should work to make sure that the school feels included in the decision-making processes that affect it. Students at Harvard Law School are simply not part of the school’s decision making process. They do not participate in faculty meetings (where a large amount of policy is made) and as often as not they are not even aware when important issues are being discussed.
As the chair last year of the committee looking into “locational alternatives” (aka Allston), Kagan attempted to bring students into the process by holding a town hall meeting. But more is needed than town hall meetings to ensure that students feel that they are truly being consulted about the future of the law school. Though students often care about the issues discussed, they often don’t turn up since they suspect their input won’t make much difference. Kagan and the new administration should find a more effective way to integrate students into the decision-making process itself.
Almost immediately, Kagan will have the opportunity to prove that she’s dedicated to a more transparent form of governance when she deals with the Allston issue. It may be too late to make the decision itself transparent — many observers suspect the deal is already done. However, even if Summers announces this year that the Law School will move across the river, there are still thousands of details to work out, hundreds of decisions to be made. Kagan should make sure there are joint faculty/student committees to deal with these issues.
The discussion of school policy should no longer solely be the province of confidential faculty e-mail lists. Students must be brought into the process. Of course, students will never have ultimate authority to make decisions that affect the school, but they should have a voice at the table.
A few years ago, the school hired management consulting firm McKinsey & Company to tell administrators why students weren’t happy at Harvard Law School. Since the study, the administration has addressed a number of problems revealed by the study (the school got smaller 1L classes) although there are still many more still to be addressed (there is still no grade reform). While the McKinsey report was a good first step, Kagan might opt for a simpler route — asking students themselves how to improve the Law School.
While we applaud Kagan’s appointment as dean, we hope Kagan will not follow Summers’ example at the University when she is running HLS.