BY ADINA LEVINE
Employing the same optimism that permeated her schoolwide address last year, Dean Elena Kagan characterized the law school as “exceptionally strong” in her State of the Law School Address to a full Ames Courtroom on September 23rd.
“The state of the school is exceptionally strong,” began Kagan. “That’s what I said last year. But in the past year I think we’ve gotten even better.”
The strength of the law school stems primarily from its students, according to Kagan, and then from the faculty and administrative staff.
“Why is it strong?” asked Kagan. “It’s really largely because of you. You are this law school’s strongest asset. You are what makes Harvard Law School what it is.”
Specifically, Kagan noted the staff’s accomplishments in making grades available online in the face of antiquated technology and engineering the OCI system so that almost all second-year students received their top eight firm interview picks.
“I really think that I’m pretty lucky to head this staff, and you’re pretty lucky to have them,” said Kagan.
Referring to Harvard as “the great metropolis, the New York City of law schools,” Kagan encouraged student participation in shaping the law school.
“This law school did not get where it is by being complacent and it won’t get where it needs to go by being complacent,” asserted Kagan. “What we do here – the education we provide, the work we do – has the capacity to change our communities, to change our nations and to change the world. In everything we do we have to remember that. It is a great responsibility.”
Kagan talked prominently about the Hark renovations. “What I like best about the new Hark is that I can imagine people going there and having fun and pursuing new ideas,” Kagan said. “And now we have space outside the structured setting of the classroom where all that can happen – which I think is a pretty great thing.”
Other changes the Dean mentioned include the appointment of three new tenured faculty members: David Barron (promoted from assistant professor to professor), Jack Goldsmith and John Manning, as well as new 15-person reading groups for 1Ls that will allow them closer contact with faculty members
“The point of these new reading groups is to encourage intellectual exchange, engage in fun seriousness,” asserted Kagan. “It’s a terrific thing.”
Overall, the changes that Kagan has made embody the idea that law school is not simply an academic pursuit, but includes an element of fun.
The Ames Courtroom audience was filled mostly with 1Ls. “Second and third years think they’ve heard it all before,” Kagan joked. “Maybe they’re right.”
As for Kagan’s future plans, regarding Harvard’s “core mission” of academics and education, the Dean anticipates expanding the size of the faculty and decreasing the size of the classes. Though the size of the 1L classes has been reduced from 140 to 80 students, the Dean hopes to reduce the size of the 2L bundle courses as well. Kagan reported that last year 242 courses were offered with fewer than 50 students, and 177 courses had fewer than 25 students.
“Most law schools don’t have that many courses, period,” noted Kagan. “We can do still better, and we will do still better. Harvard Law School should be a place where students can explore the intellectual interests that most drive them.”
Another long-term academic goal is reassessing the curriculum, according to Kagan. The 1L curriculum currently in place is 130 years old, from the time when Harvard invented it. The Dean anticipates restructuring the curriculum to better incorporate coursework in international law.
“You cannot study only American law in school and come out of school prepared to deal with all of the issues you will face,” said Kagan. “It cannot be done. Only 30% of graduating law students nationwide have taken an international law course. That’s ridiculous – it should be 100%.”
Kagan also insisted that professors should be more in touch with the realities of the legal profession. “The legal profession in the world of law is changing every day with increasing speed,” commented Kagan. “We need to review quite seriously what and how we teach.”
In terms of public service, Kagan reinforced her commitment to increasing the low income protection plan, enhancing public service counseling, and providing more financial aid so that students do not graduate with so much debt.
“Public service is a very personal subject for me,” said Kagan. “I spent a good part of my legal career in government and I came to value very highly a certain spirit of public service and what people who possess that spirit can accomplish. Public service should be a vitally important part of every lawyer’s life.”
Finally, Kagan spoke about the future improvements to the physical campus, including a renovated Hemenway gym and new student center on the northern lawn.
“I’ve discovered in this last year as Dean that I like thinking about construction projects,” said Kagan. “I like tangible material accomplishments, and I want to do more of them… I want a physical campus that’s worthy of the people in it.”
The changes that Kagan foresees include upgrading technological services as part of a two-year plan that will make all student services available online.
“But these physical changes – the ones we’ve done and the more we’ll do – express a bigger message,” commented Kagan. “The message is this: that your experience matters. That it matters most, that we’re all part of a single community and that you students are the central figures in it. So I want this to be a great year for all of you and I want this to be a great year for the law school.”
Kagan emphasized that the responsibility of improving the law school lies both with the students and with the administration.
“Part of what I’m saying has to do with what we the faculty, the administration can do for you,” asserted Kagan. “But it’s also about what you can do, what you can contribute. This won’t be the institution it can be until we all take ownership of it. You are not just the consumers of the product. You are the joint venturers in a project.”