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Elena Kagan Was Loved, Feared At Harvard

Harvard Law School Prof. Elena Kagan in April 2003 chatted with two of her former law students after it was announced that she would be Harvard Law School's first woman dean. Elise Amendola/AP Photo hide caption

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Elise Amendola/AP Photo

Harvard Law School Prof. Elena Kagan in April 2003 chatted with two of her former law students after it was announced that she would be Harvard Law School's first woman dean.

Elise Amendola/AP Photo

What a mixed picture we're getting of Elena Kagan's management style while she was dean of Harvard Law School.

On one hand, we're told she was much liked, indeed loved by many Harvard law students. But we're also told she was feared as well.

For instance, in Nina Totenberg's Morning Edition report on Kagan, President Barack Obama's choice to replace Justice John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court, we learn:

"Oh, they loved her," says (Harvard law professor) Charles Ogletree. "In fact, when she did not get appointed as the university president, the students wore T-shirts saying, 'I Love Dean Kagan.'"

Kagan famously did things to make student life nicer — everything from providing free coffee and bagels to creating an ice rink.

Ogletree says Kagan got the rink idea while musing that the school needed to do something to lighten the long, dark winters for students. So she asked the maintenance department to flood the grassy area outside her window, put hay bales around it and put up lights so that students could skate at night, too.

The jerry-rigged rink soon became a gathering place for skaters and nonskaters alike.

Kagan made a point, too, of reaching out to students like Carrie Severino. "She, I think, identified some of the conservative student leaders and asked them what kinds of things she could do to help conservatives feel more comfortable on campus," says Severino, who now heads a conservative group in Washington that appears to be inching toward opposing Kagan.

The Harvard Crimson provides some evidence for Kagan's gentler side as well.

Kagan instituted what was known as "pie-day," an occasion in November for staff to gather, eat pie, and write thank-you cards to one another. She also made a point of remembering staff members' names—which one staffer said was appreciated at an institution where relationships between faculty and staff are often tinged by elitism.

But then there's this other, no-nonsense Kagan who apparently knows the managerial uses of fear. More from Nina's report:

The cheerful, charming Kagan so beloved by the students was not always in evidence elsewhere. Secretaries and faculty members alike have stories of Kagan screaming at people, slamming doors and chewing out subordinates in public — a trait that she is said to have carried with her to her next job as solicitor general. She's a "yeller," concedes one of her friends with a wry smile.

(Law professor Mark) Tushnet, one of her admirers, puts it this way: "Her weakness as dean was that she really didn't like people to disagree with her. But that's not something you can do at the Supreme Court."

And again from the Crimson:

In the "pursuit of excellence," Kagan set the bar high for her colleagues and created "a culture of incredibly high expectations and high stakes," according to former Registrar staff member Leslie Sutton-Smith.

"It was not as much a collaborative effort as it was making sure everything was right before it got to Elena," Sutton-Smith said. "You have to come to the table 150 percent prepared because she will find a hole in whatever your argument is."

"As a result of that, she could be perceived as someone to be afraid of," she added.

In pushing for change, Kagan often displayed an insensitivity to the opinions and feelings of others, according to Maura H. Kelley, a faculty assistant who worked at the Law School for over 25 years.

"If you go against her, she doesn't take very kindly to that," said Kelley, who was familiar with staff assistants that worked under Kagan. "If she presents an idea, she wants everyone to accept it immediately without question, without debate, without input."

While legal experts and court watchers try to figure out where Kagan stands in terms of her ideology, from reports on her behavior as dean and solicitor general, it sounds like she's squarely in the mainstream of the human race. In short, she's a complicated mix of qualities that sometime seem contradictory.