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She's thawed Harvard Law

Kagan may be an Obama pick

In her five years as head of Harvard Law, Dean Dean Elena Kagan is credited with implementing changes great and small. In her five years as head of Harvard Law, Dean Dean Elena Kagan is credited with implementing changes great and small. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff/ File 2003)
By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / January 4, 2009
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In her five years at Harvard Law School, Dean Elena Kagan used her considerable clout and persuasive powers to steal faculty from other law schools, break fund-raising records, and win the hearts of students. When Kagan was passed over for the university presidency after the departure of Lawrence Summers, a group of 600 law school students held an impromptu party wearing "We (heart) Elena" T-shirts.

Now Kagan, 48, just might be going away after all, this time to Washington. She has emerged as a top contender for the job of solicitor general, a partisan post that is often a stepping stone to a Supreme Court nomination.

Harvard law professor Charles Fried said her appointment would be a loss for the law school. "The place is like it's never been before," Fried said. "She has managed to calm the factionalism, so it's completely disappeared. I think she knocked a few heads, but she worked by and large by persuasion."

Kagan did not respond to requests for interviews yesterday. The Associated Press, quoting a person who had been briefed on the process, reported Friday night that Kagan has emerged as the leading candidate for the post. The solicitor general acts as the president's representative before the US Supreme Court.

Kagan reportedly met president-elect Barack Obama when the two worked on the University of Chicago Law School faculty in the 1990s. She started teaching at Harvard in 1999, after stints as a White House lawyer and domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration. Summers named her dean of the law school in 2003, hoping she would shake up a school culture he viewed as complacent.

Some of her initial acts as dean were small-scale improvements, like offering free coffee in classroom buildings and free tampons in women's bathrooms. On the lawn outside the student center, she added a beach volleyball court that doubled in winter as a skating rink.

In an interview with the Globe last fall, Kagan said the idea for those changes came from her former boss, Bill Clinton, who believed that small, symbolic policies could help solve big problems.

"When I got here I looked around for little things I could do: things that don't cost much money, don't take much time, that you don't have to have a faculty meeting to do," she told a reporter at the time.

On a grander scale, the school revised its core curriculum, greatly expanded the number of legal clinics that offered students practical experience, and built a new $150 million academic center. And the list of faculty hired by Kagan is long, illustrious, and occasionally controversial.

A year ago, she hired renowned legal scholar Cass Sunstein, now a member of the Obama transition team, from the University of Chicago. Last spring, she coaxed Anne Alstott away from Yale Law School. She also ushered in a wave of young, high-profile public law scholars, including former Bush White House lawyer Jack Goldsmith.

Goldsmith's proposed hiring triggered a powerful backlash by faculty who questioned whether he had helped author the Bush administration's "torture memos." He had not. Kagan rallied support for Goldsmith and did not back down.

"She just stamped on them, which is what needed to be done," Fried said of Goldsmith's opponents.

"She got most people on board . . . and other people fell in line."

Law school professor Detlev Vagts opposed the hiring of Goldsmith and said in an interview yesterday that he is "not a Kagan fan."

"Her biggest achievement is to make [the law school] more student-friendly by adding more sections and radiating this somewhat, can I say, a Jewish mother" persona, he said. "She's given out a lot of chicken soup."

A professor at the law school since 1959, he added that Kagan has changed the law school environment from "cold and austere" to "warm and welcoming."

"Of course, law students are going into a world that is colder than ever before," he said.

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