Elizabeth Warren was a fresh-faced 29-year-old who had just finished a grueling day of interviews for her first major job in academia when her prospective colleagues, all men, took her to dinner at a Houston steakhouse.
One of the senior professors, a polio survivor who used a wheelchair and was infamous for needling young recruits, ordered a giant slab of meat. When it arrived, he pushed the plate in front of Warren.
“Here, cut this up,” he barked. “Can’t you tell I’m crippled?”
Warren pushed the plate right back at him. “I thought you knew that when you ordered the steak,” she said, according to a colleague, John Mixon.
The tough professor roared with laughter, and Warren got the job, as an assistant professor at the University of Houston Law Center in 1978.
Her deft and cutting response illustrates that, years before she became famous for taking on credit card companies and Wall Street bankers, Warren was poking at those in power, often in ways that tested the boundaries between bold and barbed.
Over the next 17 years, she would ascend to the pinnacle of her profession, shattering the tradition that the nation’s elite law schools hire professors groomed at those very same schools. For years, Warren’s law degree from Rutgers University made her the only tenured Harvard Law School professor trained at an American public law school.
“Growing up in rural Oklahoma and going to not-the-best schools and becoming successful — the odds are all against that happening,” said Richard M. Alderman, a Houston law professor who was initially skeptical of Warren’s credentials.
Her unorthodox career trajectory has been scrutinized since she became a candidate for Senate, particularly after the revelation that for years she had listed herself as a Native American in a professional directory often used by law school recruiters.
Critics insinuated that she must have leveraged her self-professed heritage to advance her career in the 1980s and 1990s when law schools were under pressure to diversify. However, in two dozen interviews with the Globe, a wide range of professors and administrators who recruited or worked with Warren said her ethnic background played no role in her hiring.
Instead, they said, Warren rose through the mostly male, intensely political world of academia on the strength of her unbridled — to some, off-putting — ambition as well as groundbreaking research that brought her national attention and grant money. Her ability to distill complex concepts into simple ideas and her intense connection to her students brought her student-nominated teaching awards at four of the five law schools where she taught.
Behind the scenes, some of her peers bristled at her ascent, viewing her as smart and capable but also as a climber with sharp elbows. And while Warren aligned herself with economic underdogs in her research, she was not viewed as a champion of women or minorities at the law schools where she taught. Silent on the race and gender wars that divided campuses in the 1980s and 1990s, she was never a liberal crusader.
She was not even a liberal.
She was a registered Republican as recently as 1996.
Warren came to the law in a roundabout way.
Married at 19, she worked as a speech pathologist in a New Jersey elementary school before heading to Rutgers Law. She graduated in 1976, when she was 27 and pregnant with her second child.
She opened a small private law practice in Rockaway, N.J., then took a job as a lecturer at Rutgers. In 1978, she and her first husband, Jim Warren, moved with their two young children to Houston when he landed a job at NASA.
When Warren went to work at the University of Houston, the remnants of the protest era of the 1970s still permeated the campus. But Warren could be remarkably straitlaced in her views.
Mixon, the Houston professor, who often had lunch with Warren and became an early mentor, recalled how Warren made an impassioned speech not long after she was hired about her belief in the “middle-class values” of hard work and honesty.
Celebrating bourgeois values, he said, wasn’t something most law professors did at the time.
“In the 1970s, it was considered to be sophisticated to put down middle-class values, smoke dope, and do the non-middle-class thing, and that’s why I was struck by her frank acknowledgment that she was a fan of middle-class values,” said Mixon, the son of Texas dirt farmers, who saw Warren as a fellow outsider, from a humbler background than most of their colleagues. “I had never really thought about it myself, and I thought, ‘I’m a fan of middle-class values.’ It was sort of a strange revelation.” Continued...