The past five years have brought remarkable growth and change to Harvard Law School. Here, the Bulletin takes a time-out for a brief recap and puts five questions to Dean Elena Kagan ’86.
1. When you became dean, what goals did you set, and what’s your assessment of how things are going?
My overarching goal has been to ensure that HLS students have the best possible experience and receive the best possible education during their time with us, and I think I’ve made great progress toward that end. Unprecedented faculty hiring, a landmark construction project and historic curriculum reforms—all of these efforts have been undertaken with this goal in mind. On the faculty front, our many new appointments have paved the way for smaller classes, in which students feel more directly engaged, and have vastly expanded opportunities for student-faculty collaboration. The 250,000-square-foot Northwest Corner complex, now under construction, will transform our campus, with a magnificent student center (connecting to the renovated Hark) and beautiful new spaces for clinical programs and classes. Our curriculum reforms place us squarely in the vanguard of 21st-century legal education, with 1Ls now taking courses in international and comparative law and in legislation and regulation—and soon a course in team-based complex problem-solving—and with upper-level students benefiting from a new emphasis on both hands-on clinical experiences and interdisciplinary connections with other parts of the university. So all in all, I’d say we’re doing well.
2. On the faculty-hiring front, what have been the priorities?
I’ve tried both to expand the overall size of the faculty (and bring down the student-faculty ratio) and to ensure that in each important area of law—new or old—we have the nation’s finest scholars and teachers. I’m delighted to say, we’re succeeding on both fronts. We recently capped an extraordinary round of hiring with the recruitment of Cass Sunstein—the most prolific, wide-ranging and influential legal scholar of our time, with expertise in areas ranging from constitutional law to behavioral economics and law. We’ve appointed 39 new faculty members over the past five years, building on areas of traditional strength, such as constitutional law and legal history, while also expanding our presence in rapidly evolving fields such as cyberlaw, environmental law and international law. To a remarkable extent, these new faculty are not only the leading researchers in their fields, but also phenomenal teachers. HLS now has both the largest and the strongest faculty in its history. I can’t imagine a more exciting time to be a student here.
3. Encouraging lawyers and law students to get involved in public service is one of your missions. How is HLS going about this?
My goal is to make certain that every HLS graduate has the opportunity to do the sort of work he or she finds most meaningful—regardless of how much it pays. In the past, some of our graduates have felt the need to put off public service work until after they’d paid down law school loans, but my hope is that a growing number of them will now feel comfortable moving into public service jobs right after law school. That’s because this year we launched a new Public Service Initiative, which reduces the cost of law school by one-third for students committed to public service careers—we just don’t charge them third-year tuition. We’re also continuing to expand our loan repayment program (already the most generous in legal education), provide summer funding to any student pursuing public interest work and offer an unsurpassed range of clinical options that allow students to hone their legal skills while also making the world a better place. Of course, all of these forms of encouragement cost money. I can think of no better reason for our ambitious fund-raising campaign, and I am extremely grateful for the support of all who have contributed.
4. There’s a fairly widespread perception that Harvard has all the money it needs. What do you say in response to that?
I know everyone hears about Harvard’s $35 billion endowment, but the law school’s share of that is less than 5 percent. Our endowment per student is lower than that at almost any other school in the university—and critically, is lower than those of our principal competitors (Yale and Stanford law schools). The key point is that the endowment (along with tuition) covers the costs of what we are doing now—and is in very large measure restricted to certain specific activities. To do new things in the future—to change, improve and innovate—without unduly taxing our students, we need continued support from our alumni body. Increasing the level of that support has also been one of my principal goals. Given how much it will cost to do the things we want to do—to expand our faculty, to continue to modernize and enhance our curriculum, to improve our facilities (including, critically, our residential buildings) and to support public service activities by our students—I am convinced that the time I spend fund-raising is as important to the school and its students as the time I spend on any other single activity.
5. When prospective students ask you why they should choose HLS over other top-tier law schools, what do you tell them?
I tell them what I believe—that this is the most exciting law school in the world. HLS is the “big city” of law schools, unmatched in its energy, activity and diversity. There just isn’t any other place that provides the range of opportunities and resources we do, whether we’re talking about courses and seminars, clinics, student journals and organizations, or research programs. And there’s no other law school that has such an extraordinary group of people. HLS is a place where sparks fly and where countless instances of what I call intellectual serendipity occur every day. If you value passionate engagement, if you thrive on intellectual challenge and spirited debate, and if you’re committed to making the world a better place (whatever that means to you personally), it’s the best place I know to study law.
In just five years…
Timeline of a school’s transformation
Harvard Law School has benefited from a major reform of the curriculum, the design and groundbreaking for a stunning new building complex, an impressive expansion of the faculty, major initiatives to support public service, the launch of important new research programs and centers, the creation of exchange programs with foreign universities, and student-friendly refurbishments of the Harkness Commons, Pound Hall and the Hemenway Gym. Oh, and did we mention the free coffee and the skating rink? Fasten your seat belts and take a look back …