At Harvard, Kagan Won More Fans Than Foes Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan spent six years as dean of Harvard Law School. She is credited with ending decades of faculty feuds, and even critics say her tenure there was largely successful. But there are those who take issue with her management style and legacy on minority recruitment.
NPR logo

At Harvard, Kagan Won More Fans Than Foes

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
At Harvard, Kagan Won More Fans Than Foes

At Harvard, Kagan Won More Fans Than Foes

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Elena Kagan is looking to get a majority of senators on her side as she seeks confirmation to the Supreme Court, and her most enduring professional achievement may be her time as dean at Harvard Law School. She was dean from 2003 until 2009, and by almost any measure, she was highly successful. That said, she has her detractors who portray her as a skillful strategist with a temper.

NPR legal affairs correspondence Nina Totenberg has this look at Kagan's tenure.

NINA TOTENBERG: In some ways, the descriptions of Elena Kagan as dean sound a little bit like the beginning of the old "Superman" TV series.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Superman")

Mr. CHARLES LYON (Announcer): Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel with his bare hands.

TOTENBERG: Translate that to Harvard, and you can almost hear the music...

(Soundbite of music)

TOTENBERG: Kagan, who can raise money by the millions. Kagan, who can end the faculty wars over hiring. Kagan, who won the hearts of students.

(Soundbite of music)

TOTENBERG: Well, you get the idea.

She did, indeed, do all these things. But the things she gets perhaps the most credit for is that she ended decades of factional faculty feuding, winning faculty approval to hire an astonishing 22 new tenure-track professors, including some prominent conservatives who'd served in the Bush administration.

President Obama and some of her admirers have suggested this feat shows her ability to build consensus. But even her supporters concede that her tactic was less consensus-building than skillfully greasing the process. She built key relationships with faculty members in every ideological camp and then rammed through decisions.

Longtime conservative faculty member Charles Fried.

Professor CHARLES FRIED (Faculty Member, Harvard Law School): She knocked some heads, and she made people realize that it couldn't go on because we were aging and we weren't replacing ourselves, and we needed to grow.

TOTENBERG: Liberal Mark Tushnet, recruited from Georgetown Law School, describes the Kagan strategy this way...

Professor MARK TUSHNET (Faculty Member, Harvard Law School): My own judgment is that running the place with a fairly heavy hand was what was politically necessary in order to get the faculty to move forward.

TOTENBERG: Some on the left, however, said they stopped going to faculty meetings because they viewed discussion as truncated and disagreements as glossed over. Said one campus critic: I think she has a political heart. She wants to do good, but she has no soul, no center of gravity. So her heart can move depending on the political moment.

While Kagan succeeded in bringing greater ideological diversity to the faculty, she was not nearly as successful in hiring more minorities and women. Only 20 percent of the new hires were women, and there was not a single new African-American or Latino tenure-track professor hired on her watch. Duke Law professor Guy-Uriel Charles.

Professor GUY-URIEL CHARLES (Law, Duke University): I think that's a very difficult number to explain, not to have hired a single person. So the question then becomes: Why was that not a priority?

TOTENBERG: Harvard's Charles Ogletree, an aggressive civil rights advocate, agrees the numbers are not good.

Professor CHARLES OGLETREE (Harvard): It's been unfortunate, but I don't, in any way, doubt her own commitment to that diversity, and I see that in the unprecedented number of students of color that came to Harvard since she was the dean.

TOTENBERG: Ogletree notes that minority enrollment grew to one-third of the incoming class on Kagan's watch. What's more, she recruited minorities for fellowships at the school so they could position themselves for tenure-track jobs. And she instituted innovative programs to attract students to public interest and government jobs, using stipends and big tuition grants. Kagan, in turn, was hugely popular with students. Again, Charles Ogletree.

Mr. OGLETREE: Oh, they loved her. In fact, when she did not get appointed as the university president, the students here at Harvard wore T-shirts around saying: I Love Dean Kagan.

TOTENBERG: Kagan famously did things to make student life nicer. Musing that winter was too long and dark, she had a wild idea, for instance: flood a grassy area on the campus, put hay bales around it, light it, and presto, an ice rink. It was a huge success, a student gathering place.

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, conceded one of her friends with a smile.

One of her admirers, Professor Tushnet, put it this way...

Prof. TUSHNET: Her weakness as a dean was that she really didn't like people to disagree with her. But that's not something that you can do in the Supreme Court.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.