In her first months as dean, Elena Kagan ’86 focuses on student and faculty concerns, public service, a fund-raising campaign and a campus in transition

Last July 1, Elena Kagan ’86 began her tenure as the 11th dean of Harvard Law School. Appointed on April 3 by Harvard President Lawrence Summers, Kagan spent the intervening months meeting with HLS faculty, students, staff and alumni to prepare for her new position.

Before joining the HLS faculty as a visiting professor in 1999 and then becoming a tenured professor in 2001, Kagan worked in the White House, first as associate counsel to the president and later as deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy. She was also a faculty member at the University of Chicago Law School from 1991 to 1995.

Soon after becoming dean, Kagan met with the Bulletin and discussed a range of issues from public service to faculty hiring to baseball.

What are some of your immediate priorities as dean?
There are several. The appointment of faculty is always a priority. We want to grow our faculty in the next decade by about 15 professors. We want to ensure that we’re covering all of the emerging as well as all the traditional areas of law, and we also want to continue to bring down our student/faculty ratio so that students really get the interaction with the faculty they deserve.

Another priority is fostering a vibrant intellectual culture at the law school, among faculty and between faculty and students. Of any law school in the world, this law school has the greatest resources, and we have to bring those resources to bear to ensure that faculty and students alike are continually engaging with ideas and legal knowledge.

We also need to continue to improve the student experience. Of course a huge part of the student experience is academic and intellectual, so what I just mentioned in terms of intellectual culture is vital there. But beyond that, we want to ensure that our students have the best facilities, so we’ll continue to make improvements to our physical plant. And in terms of the classroom experience itself, we want to keep building on the reduction in size of the first-year sections, and the creation of law colleges, which has done so much to improve the education we provide students, as well as the way they feel about the law school.

As you begin to grow the faculty, are there any legal fields or disciplines that you’re going to focus on in particular?
Well, we need to recruit some top international law scholars. Legal problems are becoming global. That means that legal solutions need to be global. And that means we need to educate our students in global matters. We have a terrific international law and comparative law faculty, but we can strengthen it further. We’re going to do a great deal more in this area, and we need the faculty resources to support those greater endeavors.

Another area where we unfortunately have a gap is environmental law, and I’m making it a priority to ensure that students who are interested in going into that field have at least one permanent faculty member at the law school who can teach environmental law courses and advise on environmental law projects.

And then there are certain areas of our faculty that continue to be great, great strengths, but where we would like to hire some younger people–I would say, in particular, the areas of taxation and constitutional law.

Since your appointment, you’ve talked about making public service a priority. But when you look at the difference in salaries between the private sector and the public sector, what can one law school really do to get more students heading in the direction of public service? 
It’s true that students often make enormous financial sacrifices to do public service. A law school has to try hard to minimize that sacrifice so that students can go into those jobs. At Harvard Law School, we have an extremely good debt-forgiveness program called LIPP [Low Income Protection Plan], which has that aim. In fact, it’s part of our Strategic Plan, and part of our new fund-raising campaign, to continue to improve LIPP and put even more resources into it. That’s very important. We need to ensure that students with the desire to go into government, to go into public interest organizations, actually feel that they can do so.

But that’s not the only way to do public service. Students who go into law firms can do public service of various kinds too. It’s very important to instill in our students an understanding that, whether they’re in government or in a public interest organization or in a law firm or in a business entity, there are ways to give back–to give back to the community, to give back to the nation, to give back to the world.

Is there a particular mentor or teacher who has served as a role model?
One person who was very important to me, who died in 2000, was Abe Chayes. Abe taught me civil procedure and continued to advise me throughout my law school career. In addition to being a great teacher and scholar, he was a model public servant. He served the nation with great distinction in the Kennedy administration and, when he came back to Harvard, continued to make important contributions to international law and international relations.

You’ve said before that the law school is really two campuses. What do you mean by that?
The academic facilities of the law school are truly marvelous. The library is the greatest facility of its kind. Students walk into it and gasp, as they should. And many of the classrooms, particularly in Austin Hall and Langdell Hall, are extremely well-equipped. In addition, the faculty have offices that are really envied by our peers at other schools.

Where we fail is in our nonacademic student facilities: our student center, our dormitories, our gymnasium. Those facilities are not of the quality that a first-class or world-class law school ought to have, and that has to be addressed.

Now that President Summers has announced his plans for Allston and they do not include the law school, how do you feel about that, and what are your plans for the school’s campus?
I think the decision that President Summers made was good for both the university and the law school. It was good for the university because it allows the sciences to grow, and they do need a great deal more space than they currently have or could have in the future in Cambridge. The decision is good for the law school because it allows us to stay in our historic campus at the center of the university, near to Harvard Yard and Harvard Square and near as well to many of the other academic departments and schools with which we associate. Unlike many schools in Cambridge, we do have the capacity to grow and to renovate our campus, and we look forward to doing that in the future.

You made some renovations last summer. Can you tell us about those?
We did two things last summer. We renovated the first floor of Pound Hall, which has some of the classrooms most used by students. They had fallen into a state of real disrepair. We equipped them with all the latest technology and with all new furniture, so that they are now really superb learning environments. We also created comfortable common areas in the building for students to study and converse. The other thing that we did was to create an outdoor plaza area outside the Harkness Commons. One weakness of our physical campus is that we really haven’t had in the past a central space for students and faculty to meet each other, to talk, to just hang out, and what we’ve tried to create was a plaza area to function in just that way. And I’m happy to say that, as long as the weather stayed warm, it served that function admirably; people just loved it. It’s too bad that we don’t have Stanford weather so that we could take advantage of it throughout the year.

Elena KaganWhat plans do you have to expand the current campus?
We’re going to do some short-term things over the next couple of summers to current facilities. We’re going to try very hard this coming summer to renovate the Harkness Commons. This is a complicated project because the building is considered historic in all kinds of ways, so that we have to deal with many regulations and restrictions. But we’re very hopeful that by the end of the summer, the Harkness Commons will be a much-improved student facility. And then probably after that, we’ll turn our attention to the gymnasium and make that building, which is now quite mediocre, into a first-class athletic facility. So those are two things that we’ll probably do in the next two summers. In the long term, we have a considerable amount of space in back of Pound Hall and west of the Harkness in which to build once we raze an aboveground parking garage and also an old dormitory. What we hope to do is to build a new quad on our campus in that northwest corner area, which will function primarily to house facilities for students–an expansion of the Hark as a student center, space for student journals and organizations, new assembly and meeting space of all kinds, and new classroom space too.

Are there things in the curriculum that you think need to be changed–either in the first year or in the upper levels–to better reflect the demands of the world?
I think we need to review the curriculum generally. In significant ways, the law school continues to use the curriculum devised by Christopher Columbus Langdell in the 19th century. But the world since then has changed in all kinds of ways. Certainly we’ve become more international, and our curriculum ought to become more international. Certainly our law is more statutory and regulatory in nature, and our curriculum ought to reflect that. Law schools often have shied away from curriculum reform, and often for good reason. It’s hard for a faculty, any law faculty, to agree on how to change the law school curriculum, but I think we have a responsibility to review that periodically. And I’m very committed to doing so, looking at both the first-year and the upper-level curriculum and examining too our clinical and legal writing programs.

You’re assuming the deanship in the midst of a very ambitious fund-raising campaign. How do you balance the need to be on the road with the need to be here, running the institution?
I don’t think there is a balance; I just need to do both. You know, the campaign is critically important for the law school’s future. The continued progress of the law school depends on our securing the resources the campaign seeks. At the same time, there’s a great deal to attend to here on campus. So I have to work hard to make sure that we achieve the campaign’s goals, while I also pay close attention to what’s going on here on campus.

What have you learned from talking to alumni working in the profession? 
The first thing I’ve learned is that our alumni are an extraordinarily thoughtful group of people. So many of the alumni have accomplished so much and have thought so deeply about the state of the legal profession and how the profession relates to legal education. I’ve enjoyed my travels around the country more than I ever expected to, in large part because every place I’ve gone, I’ve had conversations with them about how the law school can do better to train our students and to ensure that they are as prepared as they can be to practice in today’s world of law.

When you were first appointed, the media focused quite a bit on your being the first woman dean, and you were asked how it felt to be the first woman. Perhaps the better question is: What does it mean for the law school? 
When I was named dean and people said, “How does it feel?” I thought, well, it probably feels no different for me than it would for a man, you know, that it felt great to be named dean regardless of my being a woman. But I think it felt different to many other people in the community, and I understand why that’s so. It’s so because of the history of women at Harvard Law School, which is not a history of which the law school should be altogether proud. Women came late to Harvard and were treated, for many years, as second-class citizens. And for those women who suffered through “ladies’ day” and similar things, I think it was a great thing, and I’m glad that my appointment made them happy in some way–made them feel as though they had finally arrived.

How did your experience in the White House prepare you for this job?
That job certainly involved management, which is part of this job, and that job involved the coordination and leadership of policy processes, and in some ways that’s exactly what a dean does–try to move an institution to adopt various kinds of new policies and procedures. And I suppose the political skills that I learned in that job are, to some extent, transferable to an institution like this one.

One last question: You’re a New Yorker. So, Yankees or Mets?
Mets! I’m a loyal fan. They didn’t give me much to cheer about last season, but Mets it is.