Professor to Politician

Trading in lectures for campaign speeches, Warren’s approach remains recognizable

Academic for Senate
Danielle E. O'Neil

In March 2011, about 150 students from across Massachusetts flocked to Emerson College in downtown Boston for the annual College Democrats of Massachusetts convention.

On the second afternoon of the weekend-long summit, the undergraduates filed into a large lecture hall, awaiting the convention’s headliner, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren. As the U.S Senate candidate took the podium, the excited crowd erupted in applause.

Six months after declaring her candidacy for U.S. Senate and four months since taking a leave of absence from the Law School, Warren was back in the classroom—kind of.

Pacing back and forth at the front of the large lecture hall and gesturing to students in the audience, candidate Warren seemed more like Professor Warren on this afternoon. The lecture was politics 101, with great emphasis on how a smart girl from Oklahoma grew up to become a self-professed “fancy pants” professor at one of the world’s top law schools and later decided to run for U.S. Senate.

For those following her campaign, the story is now a familiar one. But Warren’s own telling leaves something out. Glossing over the time between her teenage years and Harvard, she neglects almost completely her meteoric rise through academia that landed her, in 1995, at Harvard and at the peak of her profession.

The road from professor to candidate has been a long one, filled with controversy and success. But by tracing her stepping-stones, the likeness between Warren today and the aspiring law student of 30 years ago becomes clear. As the 62-year-old has swapped out lectures for campaign speeches in recent months, the fixation of Warren the academic on bankruptcy and commercial law has become the Senate candidate’s platform to reclaim the middle class dream and a seat on Capitol Hill.


Academics like Warren are no strangers to politics. As advisers and appointed officials, professors often lend expertise to a perpetually fluctuating brain trust that waxes and wanes with the fate of each party. They are the force behind many of the commissions and agencies that make the government run.

Very few, however, actually run for office. In the past 100 years, the list of prominent professors who ran and won national office is brief, and the list of those who ran and lost is not much longer.

But if the nature of her profession alone makes Warren’s decision to run unique, her decision to build a campaign around the ideas that fueled her career has even less precedence.

Those professors who have run in Massachusetts, most notably H. Stuart Hughes and most recently Robert B. Reich, did so with little carry-over from their academic work and with little hope for victory.

The problem is that academia is notoriously difficult to translate into terms that non-academics can understand. Hughes largely side-stepped the issue by running for Senate as a candidate of the “New Left” in 1962 instead of as a professor. Reich embraced his academic past to a degree, but his political history was a stronger claim to legitimacy.

“People want to know relatively simply and straightforwardly what are the major points. You have to take the stuff that you would do as an academic and translate it into ways that are useful,” says G. Eric Brunstad, Jr., a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School who has co-authored with Warren.

According to professors who have worked with Warren at various points during her more than 30 years in academia, the skills and message Warren brings to the table is a useful one. Her experience, they say, does in fact lend itself to translation.

Warren is different from most of her Harvard Law School colleagues: She is one of only a handful of Ivy League professors who were not educated in the Ivy League themselves.