BY CHRIS SZABLA
Dean Elena Kagan ’86 began this year’s State of the School speech by offering a perspective on Harvard Law School from nearly a century ago. At that time, she said, future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis had observed that, despite wrestling with the question of whether to emphasize practice or leadership in a time of social and economic transformation, the consideration of that very question put it, doubtlessly, in the vanguard of change.
Speaking to a standing-room-only audience in the Ames Courtroom on Monday, September 16, the Dean said that Brandeis’ observations remained apt today, as HLS again worked to reshape legal education. Touching on five areas – faculty appointments, public service, curricular reform, campus improvements, and technology – she outlined the school’s achievements over the last year as well as its goals for the next.
The law school, Dean Kagan said, was still in the midst of an unprecedented faculty hiring drive. Eleven new faculty members joined for the new school year, and a twelfth will follow in January. This has brought the law school faculty to a total of 101, the largest number in the school’s history. Kagan noted that the quality and reputation of HLS’ student body was its biggest selling point in attracting new recruits.
While the hiring of former University of Chicago professor Cass Sunstein ’78 had probably created the most buzz, Kagan observed, other hires were just as noteworthy: two faculty members who were specialists on bioethics, two practice-oriented professors contributing to a “Clinical Renaissance”, and a newly-minted “professor of practice” hired away from Harvard Business School. Altogether, the Dean pointed out, this lowered HLS’ student-faculty ratio to the point at which it has more classes with fewer than 25 students than most law schools have courses altogether.
Kagan went on to glow over students’ enthusiasm for public service. 94% of the student body, she said, had exceeded their required number of pro bono hours, averaging over 500 hours of public service work each – over ten times the requirement. To Kagan, this demonstrated that the “ardor” Brandeis had observed in HLS students during his time had not flagged.
She then discussed the school’s attempt to expand options for those who intended to pursue whole careers in public service. The new Public Service Initiative would commit the school to pay 3L tuition for students who agreed to pursue certain public interest-oriented coursework requirements and who pledged to spend at least five years in public service after graduation. This, she said, would not replace, but supplement the school’s low income protection plan (LIPP) and summer public interest funding (SPIF) programs, which, she claimed, were the nation’s most generous.
“Passion and commitment, not loan debt, should determine what students should do after they graduate,” she concluded, noting that the school’s core mission was to “promote…law and advance justice around the world.”
The Dean also reviewed the new 1L curriculum, introduced the previous year. The class on Legislation and Regulation and newly required international law electives won “excellent reviews” from the Class of 2010, she said, observing that “Leg Reg” was actually the most favored of any 1L course among those surveyed. In the coming years, a third new class would be added to the 1L repertoire, a winter term course involving students working in teams to solve problems. Kagan also touched on new fellowships that the school would offer for students hoping to return to the classroom after graduation – one for summer research, and one for postgraduate work.
On the state of the campus, Kagan observed that students “need to live in an environment of legal thought, not on it.” The Northwest Corner complex, which remains under construction, “will transform” much of the physical experience of the law school, she promised, but also highlighted other, smaller improvements. The Hark and the Hemenway Gymnasium have been gut renovated, student housing options have been expanded with the relocation of the wooden houses that were on the current site of the Northwest Corner building, and the Gropius dorms, which, the Dean said, were “still inadequate” for students, would be given more upgrades. Kagan also highlighted the changeover in food service providers from Sodexho to Restaurant Associates, saying that all hourly employees of the former were able to stay on at HLS.
The Dean went on to address how HLS was assessing and confronting its environmental impact. The Northwest Corner building, she claimed, would receive certification as a green building, and smaller improvements to Gropius would help contribute to a greener campus. Kagan also announced that the school would discontinue use of plastic water bottles at events – although they had been given out for the occasion of her speech. Nevertheless, she announced that every student in the room would receive a reusable water bottle on their way out of the room. “I feel a little like Oprah,” she said, adding that the school would be adding filtered water dispensers to its buildings.
Finally, Kagan addressed the school’s technology initiatives. She pointed to the law school’s re-launch of the social networking site Sidebar, which she said she hoped would become the “intellectual counterpart to Facebook.” Starting this semester, she continued, a new exam system would allow students to pick up and submit take home exams online, ending the last minute mad dashes that have long been a tradition of HLS finals. Unfortunately, the Dean said, similar upgrades could not be made to the course registration system for a long time to come, although she acknowledged that the current system did not “meet our needs” and that the school was in the market for a new one.
Dean Kagan concluded her address with a vignette from the life of Barack Obama ’91, the current Democratic presidential nominee. Obama, she said, rejected the typical path of a law review editor, opting to practice at an obscure civil rights firm rather than take a high level clerkship. She urged students to pursue their passions rather than their notions of prestige, and finished by saying she hoped students would give thoughts on how they themselves would want to improve HLS.