Elena Kagan’s Management Style Amped Up Pressure at Harvard Law School

In creating a culture of high expectations, Kagan placed strain on working relationships, some HLS staffers say

Crimson file photo

Kagan, seen during a champagne reception celebrating her appointment as HLS Dean in this April 2003 file photo, ascended to the position of dean only two years after receiving tenure.

In her pursuit of the highest standards at Harvard Law School during her tenure as dean, Elena Kagan gained a reputation for her effective leadership and assertive management style.

Though her nomination as Supreme Court Justice on Monday has been warmly received by many colleagues, several individuals among the Law School’s faculty and staff interviewed by The Crimson in the last month raised questions about how Kagan’s temperament may translate to her time on the bench.

At the official announcement of her nomination, President Barack Obama hailed Kagan, currently Solicitor General, as a “consensus builder” known for “her openness to a wide range of viewpoints.”

During her five years as dean, Kagan pushed through a major curricular reform and won the hearts of students and faculty alike by reaching out with simple gestures, such as opening an ice skating rink (now closed due to budget cuts) and providing free coffee.

But multiple interviews with Law School staff depict Kagan as a brusque leader whose ambitious agenda of effecting change created a culture of high standards and sometimes fostered tense relations with some of her co-workers.


Elena Kagan: Her Time at Harvard

Elena Kagan: Her Time at Harvard

Three Law School colleagues characterized Kagan’s management style as “very Washington,” an echo of her previous administrative experience in government as Thurgood Marshall’s clerk and former President Bill Clinton’s Associate White House Counsel.

“She brought very high expectations to the school,” said current Law School Dean Martha L. Minow, who enthusiastically endorsed her predecessor’s nomination on Monday. “She held no one more than herself to high standards. So ‘We’re fine, we don’t have to be stepping it up’—that attitude was over when she was dean. Some people didn’t really like it, some people disagreed.”

“Not everybody loves change,” Minow added.


Several faculty members credited the success of Kagan’s sweeping initiatives and her ability to break through bureaucratic logjams at the Law School to her strong-handed management style.

“There’s a lot of navel-gazing in academia,” said Dean of Students Ellen M. Cosgrove, who lauded Kagan for transforming the pace and productivity at the Law School. “She was someone who wants to get the job done quickly, on a time-frame that is more consistent with the real world and the corporate world.”

Fresh from a post in the White House, Kagan brought intensity along with her proposals to remake a Law School tired of being second best to perennial rival Yale Law and criticized for a lack of concern for its student body.

“She’s a demanding dean—as she should be,” Law School Professor Alan M. Dershowitz said.

Kagan succeeded Robert C. Clark as Dean, whose administrative style starkly differed from Kagan’s.

Clark faced an ideologically divided faculty during his time as Dean, and one of his major accomplishments was soothing the rifts that would pave the way for some of Kagan’s most transformative initiatives.


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