Under Kagan, A Harmonious HLS

Past successes could launch future presidency for popular Law School dean

This is the sixth article in a continuing series.
Part 1: Provost Considered for Top Post
Part 2: Will These Cowboy Boots March West?
Part 3: Deft Historian May Be Harvard's Future
Part 4: 'Iowa Values' for Mass. Hall?
Part 5: Harvard May Stretch for Etch

On weekday mornings, Elena Kagan can be found meeting administrators and students over poached eggs and toast at Henrietta’s Table. She responds to e-mails personally and promptly on her BlackBerry. And on some weekend nights, she and other top legal scholars come together for poker parties at her Porter Square Victorian.

Kagan, 46 years old and the dean of Harvard Law School, has gained a reputation as a consensus-driven diplomat who has brought unity to the historically fractious school.

“She listens to everyone and manages actually to hear not just what’s said but what isn’t said,” Loeb University Professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62, for whom Kagan worked while a student, wrote in an e-mail. “And, having heard all the notes and half-notes, she emerges with a melody that harmonizes all the tunes she has heard but that’s distinctly her own.”

In her three and a half years as dean, Kagan has worked with the law faculty to pass historic revisions to the school’s first-year law curriculum, and won the hearts of students with initiatives like free coffee and an ice skating rink.

She has led HLS back into reentered the lateral hiring market, poaching several scholars from other top law schools, and has moved forward with plans for what will likely be remembered, along with the curricular review, as her legacy: the new 250,000 square-foot, student-center-cum-classroom space that will transform the Law School’s storied campus.

And to pay for the expanded professoriate and the new construction, Kagan has kicked off a $400 million capital campaign that is slated to be complete in about 18 months.

But what may be most distinctive about Kagan is her ability to effect change while uniting a school that has been marked by intense faculty and student discord over the past several decades.

And though her name has been floated as a possible nominee to the Supreme Court, some wonder whether the presidency of Harvard may instead be in Kagan’s future.

Search committee members in recent weeks have spoken particularly highly of Howard Hughes Medical Institute President Thomas R. Cech—who withdrew his name from consideration yesterday—and Radcliffe Institute Dean Drew Gilpin Faust. And as Cech’s announcement yesterday adds new questions to the status of the search, Kagan may still be in contention for the University’s top job.


A native New Yorker and a graduate of Hunter College High School, Kagan blazed a brilliant academic path in her early years, moving from Princeton to Oxford to Harvard, and then holding positions at the Supreme Court and the White House.

Upon graduating in 1981 from Princeton, where she was editorial chair of The Daily Princetonian, Kagan won a scholarship to Oxford, studying at Magdalen College before returning home to enroll at Harvard Law.

In law school, Kagan served as supervising editor of the Harvard Law Review—overlapping with Corporation Secretary Marc L. Goodheart ’81, who is coordinating the University’s search for a new leader.

After graduating in 1986, Kagan clerked for two renowned liberal jurists: Abner J. Mikva, an appeals court judge, and Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice to sit on the Supreme Court.

Harry P. Litman ’80, who was a clerk to both Mikva and Marshall at the same time as Kagan, said he remembers her as someone who was particularly notable for her honesty and integrity.

Litman recalls drafting an opinion with a “little flaw” that he did not believe could be fixed without cutting corners.

“But the one thing she insisted was that we couldn’t fudge it and that we had to go forward in a way that was intellectually honest,” said Litman, a former Crimson editor. “She’s just the straightest of straight shooters and the quickest of quick studies.”

After finishing the clerkships and spending two years at a top Washington law firm, Kagan joined the faculty at the University of Chicago, where she stayed full-time for four years before taking a job in the Clinton administration. It was there—while serving as the deputy director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council—that she first came into contact with Lawrence H. Summers when the two worked on tobacco legislation.


When Kagan became the dean of the Law School in 2003—just two years after becoming a tenured professor—she took the helm of a school whose divisive ideological battles had largely been put to rest, but where many felt the curriculum had atrophied and a number of fresh faculty appointments were needed to replace a graying faculty.

Robert C. Clark, Kagan’s predecessor who became dean in 1989, inherited a school that had been torn by bitter fights between traditionalist professors and proponents of Critical Legal Studies, a liberal legal philosophy that questioned many of the fundamental premises of law. The clash between “the Crits” and the traditionalists, as well as fierce battles over faculty diversity, had brought faculty hiring to a halt.

But according to “Making Harvard Modern,” a history of twentieth-century Harvard, Clark managed to break the logjam, creating “a politic sharing of appointments” between the Crits and the traditionalists. “By the end of the century, a new generation of faculty and students were less caught up in the old divisive issues.”

But though the fights over faculty hiring were largely a thing of the past, the Law School suffered from an “inability to make the large number of appointments it had to make with an aging faculty” until Kagan became dean, according to Beneficial Professor of Law Charles Fried.

During Kagan’s tenure, the Law School began to court professors at other top law schools for the first time in years.

In three and a half years, Kagan poached 10 professors, bringing to the Law School top scholars in fields such as comparative constitutional law, international and national security law, and the intersection of law and religion. And the new hires are diverse in their political views: of the 10, there are several conservatives, including Jack L. Goldsmith and John F. Manning ’82.

As Kagan worked to expand the faculty, she also tapped Smith Professor of Law Martha L. Minow and a committee of professors to renew the Law School’s century-old first-year curriculum. Kagan often hosted informal dinner meetings at her home to discuss the curricular proposals.

“There was a substantial process of listening to our objections, which were taken very seriously,” Langdell Professor of Law Martha A. Field ’65 said.

“She’s succeeded in doing what people had wanted for ages but no one thought was possible,” she added.


Perhaps the longest lasting piece of Kagan’s tenure will be the new student center, which the Law School plans to build in the place of what many consider to be one of Harvard’s biggest eye-sores, the Everett Street Garage. The largest portion of the $400 million capital campaign will be devoted to the student center and other physical improvements.

But even in the fractious world of town-gown relations, Kagan and school officials like Story Professor of Law Daniel J. Meltzer ’72, the vice-dean for physical planning, have received high marks from community members.

“The Law School process has been in sharp contrast to many expansion plans by the University, and has, in many ways, been a model process,” said Joel Bard, a local resident and activist, at a Cambridge Planning Commission meeting late last year.

“I applaud Harvard University for what has been an excellent consultation process,” added Bard, who had criticized University expansions in the past.


If selected as president, Kagan’s challenge would be to create the same sort of environment within the larger university that she has fostered at the Law School—no small task given the enormity and number of competing interests that the university president faces.

But in her fourth year as dean, Kagan’s record has professors of diverse political affiliations and scholarly interests saying that they want her to remain where she is.

“We’d really like to keep her at the law school,” Field said.

Petri Professor of Law Einer R. Elhauge ’82 added that though he doesn’t think Harvard “could find anyone better to be president,” he hopes that “for the law school’s sake, we don’t lose her to the university.”

Kagan, like many presidential contenders, has declined to comment on the search. But that hasn’t stopped others from arguing her case on her behalf.

“The skill she has mastered,” Tribe wrote, “is the skill of never making the same misstep twice—and the skill of making a dozen inspired moves, moves that elevate the intellectual and emotional qualities of an already electrifying place.”

—Staff Writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at