Kagan Meets With Law Students

Mitra Dowlatshahi

Newly-appointed Law Schoool Dean Elena Kagan speaks with students at a meeting in Austin Hall yesterday. She convened the meeting to address student concerns, especially with respect to curricular reform.

Incoming Harvard Law School (HLS) Dean Elena Kagan addressed campus life, the possibility of a future move to Allston and curricular reform yesterday in her first open meeting with students since her appointment.

Though the discussion was largely driven by questions from the roughly 50 students gathered in Austin Hall, Kagan’s responses highlighted some of her priorities for the coming year—including hiring more environmental and international law faculty and reevaluating the school’s curriculum.

Kagan told students that recruiting leading faculty to fill gaps in the curriculum would be a top item on her agenda.

The Law School’s international law program has languished since Anne-Marie Slaughter, one of its premier scholars, left to head Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson Center for International Affairs last year, she said.

And environmental law has yet to attract a permanent faculty member.

But in addition to concerns about expanding the breadth of the faculty, students at the meeting questioned the efficacy of the traditional foundations of the HLS curriculum.

Several requirements, such as a mandatory supplemental writing course that forces students to take five classes in their first year, drew harsh criticism.

Kagan acknowledged that smaller law schools, like the University of Chicago where she once taught, had stronger writing programs.

Students also asked Kagan to explain the logic behind the “one-exam-grading system,” which dictates that grades for each class are usually based on a single exam at the end of the semester.

One student argued that classes with regular homework assignments and multiple tests give students better feedback.

Kagan noted that because of the structure of legal education, the Law School—unlike the College-—does not have “a middle strata” of graduate students to help with grading and instead must rely entirely on its professors.

“Since classes here are often as large as 140 students, it takes me 10 days to grade one set of exams, working 12 to 14 hours each day,” Kagan said. “So no professor in their right mind is going to willingly grade more than one set of exams.”

However, not everything at HLS is set in stone, she said.

“Like any institution, we have to periodically review our requirements, our electives. As I’ve told the faculty, we have to evaluate what we’re teaching and why we’re teaching it,” Kagan said.

But she stressed that any reforms should not be executed hastily.

“At many schools, these efforts have crashed and burned because there has been a failure to achieve consensus,” she said, reminding students that the race for curriculum reform would be “more of a