Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight



December 17, 2003:

Head of the class
Elena Kagan ’81 becomes first female Harvard law dean

Elena Kagan ’81 went to law school by default. After spending two years at Oxford as a Sachs Scholar, “I didn’t know what else to do,” she admits. But she quickly fell in love with the law as a student at Harvard Law School. And after a career that took her from a Supreme Court clerkship to the White House and back to Harvard, where she has taught since 1999, Kagan is the law school’s first woman dean.

Kagan, who started July 1, says that her appointment shows how the law school, and the legal profession, have changed for women. Harvard Law School first admitted women 50 years ago, but in the early coed years women “often were not treated very well,” and were ostracized and ignored in class, she says.

Her breadth of experience in the public and private sectors, and in academia, will influence her tenure as she manages a top law school with some 1,800 students. As a young lawyer clerking for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, she spent her days discussing pertinent legal questions with a hero of modern American history. “He remains a constant inspiration to me,” says Kagan, who majored in history at Princeton and was a litigator for the Washington, D.C., firm Williams & Connolly. Her work in the public sector continued in the Clinton administration when she served as associate counsel and deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy, and solidified her opinion that public service ought to be an integral part of any legal career. “Our students ought to say, ‘How can I take all this experience and knowledge that I have about legal rules and institutions and find a way to give back to the public?’” she suggests.

In addition to hiring faculty, setting the curriculum, and overseeing student life issues, Kagan, an expert in administrative law — law governing the operations of federal administrative agencies — is leading a small reading group this fall. Says Kagan: “Teaching is a way for administrators to keep in touch with their students.”

By Kathryn Beaumont ’96

Kathryn Beaumont ’96 is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.