Another Feather in Kagan's Cap

The Harvard Law faculty’s unanimous endorsement of extensive first-year curriculum reforms last week could strengthen Law School Dean Elena Kagan’s chances at becoming the University’s next president, law professors said yesterday.

“I think getting curricular reform enacted was a major achievement, and getting [the] curricular reform so good that everyone could agree to it is the exclamation point on an already spectacular deanship,” Petrie Professor of Law Einer R. Elhauge ’82 said in an e-mail.

The plan marks the most sweeping revisions to the school’s first-year curriculum since the tenure of Dean Christopher C. Langdell, who introduced the case method and Socratic cold-calling to legal education in 1870.

The new changes—which were first reported by The Crimson on Thursday night and announced publicly by the school on Friday—condense the standard first-year offerings and add courses on international and comparative law, legislation and regulation, and “problems and theories.”

A January term will be added for first-year students—one already exists for second- and third-years—to accommodate the problems and theories course, which will focus on “complex problem solving” on issues “beyond the bounds of any single doctrinal subject,” according to the review.

The first-year structure introduced by Langdell, Harvard College Class of 1850—which is still in place at almost every law school—includes contracts, torts, civil procedure, criminal law, and property.


While Langdell’s revisions were immensely influential and replicated almost without exception, University of Texas law professor Brian R. Leiter, whose popular blog is devoted to the goings-on of legal academia, said that he doesn’t think other law schools will follow Harvard’s lead.

“Other law schools have already been changing their first-year offerings—Michigan added transnational law and Penn added administrative or regulatory law,” Leiter said in a phone interview yesterday. “This is a case where Harvard is actually catching up.”

He added: “It’s a historical irony that this is the particular moment that international law is being added to the curriculum just as the international legal framework collapses around us...largely due to actions taken by the U.S.”

In a phone interview yesterday, Kagan didn’t entirely disagree with Leiter, saying that “no single piece of [the curricular review] is completely unprecedented.”

“What is new is the breadth and scope of the changes,” Kagan said.

While the newly approved revisions focus on the first year, the faculty approved changes to the second- and third-year curriculum late last year. The revisions are an effort to add focus to the later years by creating optional, guided tracks of study for students who wish to specialize in some area of the law. In the past, students had spent their upper-class years primarily taking introductory courses, Kagan said, and so the new tracks will allow for a “progression through the three years.”

All of the curricular changes—which have been in the works for the past three years and were guided by Smith Professor of Law Martha L. Minow—will be implemented over the next three years.


The speed with which the revisions were approved—and the fact that no professor cast a dissenting vote—highlights what many law professors have described as Kagan’s ability to modernize the Law School while still building consensus. In addition to the curricular revisions, Kagan, who was appointed by then-University President Lawrence H. Summers in 2003, has also launched a $400 million capital campaign, laid plans for a new 250,000 square-foot building north of Pound Hall, and increased the size of the faculty primarily by luring tenured professors from other universities.

Kagan has been mentioned as a potential candidate for University president. An online gambling site gives her 3-to-1 odds at securing the post.

Langdell Professor of Law Martha A. Field ’65 said in a phone interview last night that part of the reason for Kagan’s success as dean is that she “consults broadly with people” and that she is “widely liked and trusted.”

“A year ago, we were presented with a report with suggestions that a lot of us didn’t like and there was a substantial process of listening to our objections and taking them very seriously,” Field said. “She’s succeeded in doing what people had wanted for ages but no one thought was possible. I don’t know exactly how she does it, but however she does it, it’s great.”

When asked about Kagan’s oft-mentioned potential to be Harvard’s next president, Field said that the revision “is one more thing that shows her success.”

“But we’d like to keep her at the law school,” she added.

“I hope we don’t lose her to the university,” Elhauge concurred. “But I don’t think they could find anyone better to be President,” he added.

—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at