Meet The First Female Dean of Harvard Law School

Elena Kagan

Harvard Law School is among the most prestigious legal colleges in the United States with a rich history that has endured for more than two centuries. The Ivy League institution just made history by appointing the first female dean in its history in 2003. She shattered any real or imaginary glass ceilings that may have existed in perception or fact by accepting the post and achieving a notable accomplishment for any gender. It’s hard enough for highly intelligent and capable law students to gain acceptance to a highly competitive school, but an appointment as dean was a feat that took a special person who upheld the highest standards in professionalism. Her name is familiar to Harvard alumni graduating in the past several decades. She was the dean of the law school when it celebrated its 200th birthday in 2017. If you’re not acquainted with Elena Kagan or her accomplishments it’s time to meet the first female dean of Harvard Law School.

When did Elena Kagan become the dean of Harvard Law School?

Feminist Blog reports that Harvard University made the official announcement of their choice to appoint Elena Kagan as the Dean of Harvard Law School in April 2003. At the time of the appointment, she became the first woman to hold the post in the school’s then 186-year history. The decision followed a progressive change in the composition of Harvard Law’s faculty and staff.

What is the significance of her appointment?

Harvard Law School began as a predominantly male-led institution and gradually admitted women into its programs, followed by an admission of female faculty members, and now a female Dean. It was years in the making, but Kagan is one of many women in strong positions at the school, with none achieving the status of Dean until this point in time. It was exciting news for women in academia and the business world overall. It marked a turning point in attitudes and Harvard’s choice of Kagan signaled a new chapter in the leadership of the Law School. The first woman was accepted into the Law School in 1951. Kagan herself is a graduate of Harvard Law, in 1986. She brings the perspective of a woman who has worked to establish her credibility and skills in a business world that is undergoing changes and evolution to a more liberal view of assessing the capability and value of leaders without regard to gender. The selection of Elena Kagen was an inspiring move for women in all sectors of business, particularly for those in the field of law and the judicial system. Ms. Kagan was just 42 years old at the time of her appointment to the post of Dean of Harvard Law School. The American Bar Association reported that only ten percent of women occupied leadership positions at law schools and general counsels in 2003.

Who is Elena Kagan?

Biography explains that Elena Kagan is a native of New York City, born to Gloria and Robert, a middle-class Jewish family, in April of 1960. Her mother was a teacher at Hunter College Elementary School and her father was a successful attorney who was a partner at Kagan & Lubic in Manhattan. Elena was raised with her two siblings. She was the middle child. She attended the all-girls school Hunter College High School where she focused on her studies, graduating in 1977. She was accepted at Princeton University in the history program. It was her choice to study as a pre-cursor to a law degree. Elena graduated from Princeton summa cum laude in 1981, earning the Daniel M. Sachs Graduating Fellow Scholarship. She continued her education after she was accepted to Oxford, England’s Worcester College where she graduated with a master’s in philosophy. Immediately upon receiving her degree, she attended Harvard Law School. While a student, she became supervising editor of the school’s publication “The Harvard Law Review, graduating in 1986 manga cum laude.

Elena Kagan’s early career in law and politics

After graduating from Harvard Law, Elena was hired to work for Judge Abner Mikva as a clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In 1987, she landed a job as a clerk for US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. She was privileged to clerk for the highest court of appeals in the nation. While clerking, she was politically active, working for the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis. When the campaign ended, she turned her focus on the private sector, accepting a position with a law firm called Williams & Connolly in Washington D.C.

Kagan returns to the University setting

Elena Kagan gained a few years of experience in the judicial system but turned her focus to another aspect of the legal profession. She was hired as a professor at the University of Chicago Law School in 1991, earning tenure in 1995. She taught law students and shared her knowledge and experience with them, helping to train the next generation of legal professionals, but she left the Chicago Law School to pursue a different avenue in the political arena. Kagan was hired as associate counsel under the Bill Clinton Presidential administration. She worked at the post at the White House earning multiple promotions during the four years she spent there. Her final position under the Clinton administration was as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, receiving yet another promotion to Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council.

Her nomination to the US Court of Appeals

Elena Kagan received a nomination to serve on the US Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit, by President Clinton. The nomination was nixed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was an honor to receive the nomination but due to the nature of politics, the nomination didn’t result in her appointment. She turned her focus back on the academic sphere, returning to teaching as a visiting professor for the Harvard Law School. She was named professor in 2001, receiving the appointment of Dean of Harvard Law School in 2003. She made significant improvements during her tenure as the Dean of the school. The New York Times reports that she rose to the challenges of a premier law school and set about the task of manifesting the steps to attract student candidates capable of performing socially useful research, strengthening the school’s connection with the public service arena and those in the legal profession. Other challenges of the job included reducing the large class sizes, per student complaints, and addressing a lack of ethnic diversity.

A new adventure for Elena Kagan

Elena Kagan had served as the Dean of the Harvard Law School for five years when fellow alumnus President Barack Obama was elected to the United States Presidency. He selected her for the job of solicitor general. She was confirmed for the position by the US Senate after receiving an endorsement from the previous solicitors general in March 2019. She made another first by becoming the first female to become the United States, solicitor general. This was far from the pinnacle that her career would reach.

Her upward trajectory continues

Elena Kagan’s rise to the U.S. solicitor general position was a highlight in her already successful career. There would be more to come. According to Brittanica, Elena was in the post of solicitor general for just one year before President Obama had other plans for her. Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement from the Supreme Court bench. Obama nominated Kagen as the replacement for Stevens. She received her confirmation on August 5, 2010. The vote was split with 63 in favor and 37 opposed. She became the fourth female to sit on the highest appeals court in the nation as a Supreme Court Justice. Elena Kagan was 50 years old at the time of her confirmation. She achieved yet another first when she became the only justice to sit on the bench who had not been a judge, and she was also the youngest member of the court at the time of her confirmation. She served on the US Supreme Court with Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. It was the first time in United States history that three women sat on the bench at the same time.

Elena Kagan’s impact on the U.S. Supreme Court

Kagan has set a precedent for establishing records or breaking them. She’s a dynamic professional in the legal field, who continues to perform at the top of her game. She sets the bar high, and although her decisions are not always popular with everyone, she follows her moral compass. She set a precedent in June 2015 when she cast her vote to uphold part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Her vote allowed the federal government to continue the program to subsidize American citizens who purchased the plan under both federal and state-operated exchanges. She helped to pass the ruling in favor of continued support in a landmark case that became a topic of tremendous controversy. She presented oral arguments that provided a logical rationale in favor of preserving the law. It was a win for Obama that helped protect the law and make it difficult for those in opposition to the law to undo many of its premises. She held her ground against conservative justices who disagreed with the opinion.

She uses rationality to determine just rulings

The same year, a day later, the US Supreme Court made another landmark decision regarding Obergefeel v. Hodges, legalizing same-sex marriages in all fifty states. Elena Kagan heard the facts presented during oral arguments and formed an opinion that was contrary to her earlier views on the matter. In 2009 she stated that she did not see same-sex marriage as a federal constitutional right. Six years later, she indicated she may have changed her views on the matter. She is flexible and capable of change when logic supports a different view than the one she held earlier. It’s this kind of flexibility, and a willingness to set aside preconceived notions and weigh a matter concerning the letter of the law when determining its constitutionality. That is the role of each justice on the US Supreme Court.

Final thoughts

Elena Kagan has earned many titles in her professional career. She began her career after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1986. She carved a niche for herself in the competitive field of law, working as a clerk. It’s how many men and women get their feet in the door for higher positions. Clerking provides legal professionals with experience at the entry-level, however, she began at the level of the Supreme Court. Kagan has enjoyed many groundbreaking and precedent-setting experiences throughout her long and storied career. She has flexibly moved within the upper echelons of executive leadership at one of the finest Ivy League law schools in the nation. She’s served as a professor at the Chicago School of Law, and as a tenured professor and the Dean of the Harvard Law School. Elena Kagan has made a lot of firsts as the first female dean at HLS, and the first woman to serve as US solicitor general. Just when Ms. Kagan accomplished a new level of importance in her career and contributions to the study and practice of law, another opportunity would present itself to her. She was given nothing. Elena Kagan earned everything she has received. She spent her life working towards a goal of excellence and she has been rewarded with the respect of her superiors and her peers. She’s worked in the academic world, in politics, and more recently, in the judicial system. She’s made a habit of becoming the first woman in various endeavors, inspiring professional women to continue pursuing their dreams. This is the story of Elena Kagan, the first dean of Harvard Law School.

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