When Warren arrived at Penn, she was a rising star on a campus whose reputation had dimmed. Having lost professors and prestige, the school was trying to recruit superstars and Warren, by now a nationally recognized bankruptcy scholar, was the first coup. With her came her husband, Mann, a well-regarded legal historian, and a mission to recruit additional serious scholars.
To some on the faculty, improving Penn’s reputation meant diluting t he influence of liberal ideologues who they believed were coming to dominate the law school. At the time, a number of professors at Penn and elsewhere were focused on critical legal studies, a discipline that views the law through the lens of social justice, race and gender.
Warren quickly rose to become head of Penn’s appointments committee, a position that put her at the center of that struggle.
Once there, she sided decisively with those who wanted to recruit more hard-nosed scholars.
The woman who had arrived in Houston a decade earlier with a thin resume proved a rigorous and outspoken judge of her prospective colleagues. She interviewed candidates, scrutinized their scholarship, and spoke out forcefully in faculty meetings on tenure decisions.
“She was, in many ways, almost the most ambitious single person on that faculty at that point,” Diver said. “And that’s saying something.”
However, Baird, the Chicago law professor who was once Warren’s sparring partner, said: “To the extent that people criticize Elizabeth for having sharp elbows, that was at a time where, if you were a woman who didn’t have sharp elbows, you were going to be run over.”
At the same time she was fighting within the administration to recruit prominent academics, Warren stayed publicly silent on one of the most polarizing issues of her first year at Penn — the denial of tenure to a popular feminist legal philosopher, which inspired petitions and protests by law school students.
Supporters of Drucilla Cornell argued she had been snubbed because of her gender and feminist views. Her detractors dismissed her research as thin.
In recent interviews, students who had advocated for Cornell said Warren was among the influential voices who had actively opposed her, aligning herself with the administrative establishment. Several female law students from that era said they considered Warren “mainstream” and “conservative.” Cornell ultimately sued the law school for gender discrimination and won a settlement.
At the time, Warren was one of only three women with tenure on the faculty.
“She was not a rabble-rouser,” said Alix James, the chief executive of a Pennsylvania manufacturing company who graduated from Penn Law in 1988.
“I appreciated that about Professor Warren,” James said. “She didn’t wear a feminist badge. She just got the job done.”
Warren told the Globe that she did not work against Cornell. But she refused to say how she voted when the faculty had to decide whether to grant Cornell tenure.
Warren argued that she wanted to devote her energy to bankruptcy research and avoided campus crusades over minorities and women.
“I just wasn’t involved,” she said. “I’m not saying they weren’t important. They were. There were people who were pouring lots of blood, sweat, and tears into them. But not enough people were pouring blood, sweat, and tears into this issue,” she said, referring to bankruptcy studies.
Her determination to stay focused on her career led her to sidestep another liberal cause in the early 1990s. Warren had agreed to speak on a panel in Colorado, a state that academics were boycotting to protest a 1992 referendum opposing gay rights.
Baird, the Chicago professor, was also scheduled to speak on the panel and he expressed some misgivings about going forward with the event.
Warren told Baird that she too had concerns and had privately tried to persuade the federal judges who were organizing the event to relocate. But when they refused, she said she felt obligated to keep her commitment and persuaded Baird to go with her.
“At least in academic circles, going to Colorado was not regarded as the politically correct thing to do,” Baird said.
In some ways, her reluctance to join the liberal professors in protest was not surprising. Warren was a registered Republican from 1991 to 1996, according to voter registration records in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Her husband was registered as an independent there.
In an interview, Warren refused to say if she voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, or detail any of her voting history. Continued...