Kagan Outlines Her Vision for HLS


Students enjoy free drinks after the DeanĀ“s speech.

In her first public address to the entire Law School as dean, Elana Kagan issued a State of the School Address to a packed crowd in Ames Courtroom on Wednesday. Charting the future of the school, Kagan emphasized her proposed changes for increased academic excellence, a commitment to public service and enhanced student facilities.

Succinctly characterizing the state of the law school as “exceptionally strong,” the Dean proceeded to detail changes that would affect the student population, including the eventual technological capabilities to add or drop courses online, as well as the expansion of the campus.

“Make no mistake about it: we must build,” asserted Kagan. “This law school didn’t get to where it is by being complacent and it won’t get to where it needs to go by that strategy.”

Though the Dean’s main point was that we must work to ensure the academic excellence of the school in the future, as well as increase the prioritization of public service, many students emerged from the event focused only the changes that would affect student life. After an interruption of applause at her reference to free coffee, the Dean bemoaned her sadness that the practical issues of the law school seem to sometimes be a barrier to student enjoyment.

“It really bothers me that some students don’t like it here,” stated Kagan. “I want you all to love it. I want you all to love it as much as I do.”

To that end, the Dean highlighted the major changes that occurred over the summer. The courtyard outside of Harkness (“so we can have a central place to meet and greet and talk – at least for a few months of the year”) and the new Pound classrooms are only two small changes that the Dean claims are predecessors of bigger transformations.

“I made the changes that I made this summer in order to buy your patience in the more ambitious projects,” commented Kagan.

The “more ambitious projects” include a multimillion dollar technology project giving students the ability to add or drop courses online, as well as the practical question of campus expansion.

“This campus is almost two campuses – one for faculty which is nice, and one for students which is not as nice,” bemoaned Kagan.

The decision about whether to remain in the Cambridge location or move is not one that President Summers has yet resolved. If the Law School were to remain in Cambridge, the garage in the northwest corner would need to be moved underground to expand in that area. The Dean did not discount the possibility of moving the law school altogether.

“We need a physical campus that’s worthy of its people,” asserted Kagan.

Dean Kagan moreover emphasized the need for student initiative in accomplishing these changes.

“The single worst thing about this school is the detachment of many of its students,” commented Kagan. “I am not saying in any way that you are to blame for this school’s problems. We in the faculty and administration have done things to create this attitude, and those things should stop. But the solution lies partly in your hands. This won’t be the institution it can be until we all take responsibility.”

On the academic front, the Dean anticipated bettering the school through continuing to expand the faculty and revamping the curriculum. Noting that 112 classes last year had fewer than 25 students, the Dean asserted the need to continue to lower the student/faculty ratio.

“Here’s the goal: Harvard Law School should be a place where students can explore their intellectual interests and intellectual passions, where they learn what they love to do and get the training to make that possible,” asserted Kagan.

Efforts to revamp the curriculum are tentative, as the dean has initiated three committees – one on the First Year Lawyering program, another on clinical offerings and the third on the curriculum in general – to examine, among other things, whether the first year classes that have been in existence for 130 years are outdated. Additions to the curriculum will include increased focus on internationalization as well as integrating the marketable legal profession with the academic legal training, anticipates Kagan.

“We have to learn more about the profession ourselves, and we have to incorporate what we’ve learned in the way we teach and the way we ask you to learn,” explained Kagan. “So that you will leave here as well prepared as you can possibly be to make a great contribution in the law.”

Some students felt that the Dean’s focus on the need for increased public service was the highlight of the speech.

“I’m really excited about the focus on public service,” commented 1L Dan Ridlon, “especially given that only about 2% of our graduates go into government.”

Kagan seemed surprised that anyone could suggest that Harvard does not emphasize public service dedication, given its numerous programs – LIPP, Harvard’s Summer Funding Program – for public service. Nevertheless, the Dean proposed a commitment to making public service a student priority, as well as taking administrative steps, such as increased financial aid so that students will graduate with smaller debts, to encourage students to go into public service.

“All of us should feel blessed to receive this kind of education, to have these kind of opportunities,” Kagan asserted. “What most people in the world wouldn’t give for that. And that creates an obligation – to give back, to assist others, to self-consciously attempt to create a better world.”

The speech was attended by students and faculty alike. One student wondered whether faculty would be disheartened at the prospect of increased funding for student needs, which might reduce salaries.

However, Professor Martha Minow asserted that these concerns were unfounded. “The central mission of this school is its education, and the students are the focus in that,” commented Minow. “I have already spoken to some students about the speech and they were surprised how attuned the Dean was to their needs.”

Followed by a party in the Charles Hotel, the lecture and event attempted to bridge the gaps between students and administrators.

“Our message is this: that your experience here matters,” Dean Kagan concluded. “That we are all part of a single community and that you the students are the central figures in it. And together we can fulfill all our hopes, all our ambitions for this institution. I want this to be a great year.”

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