Harvard Law Students Have Mixed Memories Of Kagan

BOSTON — Now a Washington, D.C., lawyer, Katie Durick graduated from Harvard Law School last year, where she took Elena Kagan’s Administrative Law class. Durick says Kagan had only one requirement: that students come to class prepared. Two months into the class, Kagan had yet to call on Durick, so the student knew her number was coming up.

Then Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan at the opening of the school's ice skating rink in Cambridge on Jan. 21, 2004. (AP/Harvard)

“All of my friends were going out,” Durick said, “and I was just totally on the fence of whether or not to go celebrate Halloween, and I couldn’t decide what to do, and I just had this feeling that the next morning, at 8 a.m., I would be called on. So much to my chagrin, I stayed in that night, and read the case over and over, and sure enough, the next morning, 8 a.m., I heard the fateful words, ‘Miss Durick?’ and I knew that I had made the right decision.”

One of Durick’s classmates, Joel Pollak, has made the decision to run as a Republican candidate for Congress in Skokie, Ill. At Harvard Law, he often spoke with Kagan. He disagreed with her decision to send e-mails to the school community when the military appeared on campus to recruit. The e-mails disclosed her distress over the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Pollak says there were law firms being sued by their employees for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation who were recruiting at the law school.

“And yet we didn’t get alerts when these private law firms showed up on campus,” Pollack said. “We only got alerts when the military showed up on campus, so I thought it was unfair to the military and the campus should have been welcoming, and she disagreed, but we disagreed very cordially, and although I disagreed with her, I found her very open to alternative points of view.”

Kagan was committed to making students feel like Harvard Law School was a friendly place. She brought in an ice skating rink, free coffee and hot chocolate and happy hour. She pushed for financial support for students who wanted to go into public service.

Listen: Harvard Law Professor
Carol Steiker On Kagan


Diane Lucas, now a New York lawyer, welcomed these changes. But she was not so happy with Kagan’s reaction to the Harvard Law School parody. It’s a skit in which students roast other students.

“It was blatantly sexist and racist,” Lucas said. “They depicted a number of women of color in the play, and one woman who is African-American, very intelligent, very well-spoken, they depicted her as being a ghetto girl from the ‘hood’ and they made her talk in ebonics and made it so that you could hardly understand what she was saying.”

Lucas said another African-American woman was depicted as promiscuous, and a Latina woman who in reality spoke English with an American accent was depicted as speaking no English. She said several students walked out.

But Lucas says when she and other students asked Kagan to issue a formal apology, set up diversity training and hire a diversity director, Kagan refused. Kagan defended the parody as students’ freedom of speech. From that, Lucas concluded that Kagan shirked her responsibility to make Harvard Law School a more racially sensitive place.

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  • Dave

    I wish this article had more details about the Harvard Law School Parody. I don’t feel there is enough information to assess what really happened there. Parody is always a tricky balancing act – think about All in the Family from the 1970′s – that was some of the most superb parody ever produced, making a statement against bigotry,racism and intolerance in a way you could never do today in our politically correct society.

  • Cristobal DeLicia

    MADE her speak eubonics? I don’t think so. Three women of color voluntarily and without pay, perform a parody. I believe they were all Harvard students, and that’s hardly exploitation. Maybe it involved somewhat offensive classism, but not racism My opinion of Kagan has just gone up, for not cowering or catering to the PC police at Harvard.

  • Fred Thys

    Mr DeLicia, I believe that Ms Lucas was saying that a student portrayed a well-spoken African-American student, named in the skit, as talking in ebonics.

  • Erica

    Complaints about the “PC police” are basically just shorthand for “shut up and stop talking about racism/sexism/ableism/whichever -ism I don’t care about and continue to perpetuate.” Way to derail, commenters.

  • Anonymous Please

    I was at HLS during that time and as an African American student I was incensed at the fuss being made over the parody. The student who was portrayed as ghetto maintained a public facebook page constantly writing in ebonics and talking about fights and the hood. The student who was depicted as promiscuous maintained a public facebook page with hundreds of pictures of her in bikini’s and lingerie. These people were not the proper test case for the parody’s racism. It’s politically incorrect by nature. It also depicted Dean Kagan herself as a lesbian. It is a tough play because it picks at the images people put out there of themselves in a crass way. It’s not a nice thing and it could be scrapped altogether, but not for just being racist.

  • Diane

    Anonymous…Your facts are wholly inaccurate. Maybe you are talking about a different incident. The woman who was potrayed as being promiscous was not even on facebook! She is grooming herself to be a judge, and would never publish a picture of herself in a bikini/lingerie. My friend, who was portrayed as speaking “ebonics” never spoke like that to her peers in class. EVER! It is really disappointing that you cannot appreciate that these were racist and sexist acts, and above all, very hurtful to these students. I strongly believe in freedom of speech, which is why I believe that students have the right to speak out about racism and sexism at their shcool. This is espcially necessary at a school like Harvard Law, where many of its alumni hold positions of power in our government.

  • Anonymous Please

    Diane, I’m sorry that your friends were hurt by the parody. I will repeat my assertion that the parody is a mean spirited production thats not good enough to justify itself and perhaps it should be scrapped. The truth however, is that just because your friend didn’t speak ebonics in class doesn’t mean her classmates were not free to peruse her facebook page and judge her accordingly. Furthermore, I certain the woman with the bikini/lingerie pictures was depicted in the parody as promiscuous. I’m not sure to whom else you are referring. Please respect my choice to be anonymous. At the time of the parody the students depicted and their close friends were a small, but vocal minority. At the meeting to discuss whether any response was warranted by the Black Law Students Association one of your friends stood up and hurled insults such as “coward” and “weak” at the other African-American students in the room for their perceived refusal to take a stand. In fact, most students felt the depictions were not unfair, as “un-nice” as they may have been. I would rather this discussion not descend to that level again and so chose to anonymously mention the truth, in recongition of the fact that for some the issue was too personal for a fair assessment.

  • Helen

    Political correctness is the reason we don’t have shows like All in the Family today?! That is utterly backward. AitF stood up for values that people sneer at as “too PC” today. I agree with Erica.

  • Matt

    The parody at the time of the infamous incident was a different beast than it has become because of it. Ignoring the merits of the complaints against that particular parody, the parody itself is a function of the HLS Drama Society. You wouldn’t ask a Dean of a law school to apologize for the comments written in the publication of one of its student groups. If the HLS Record wrote something scandalous, you wouldn’t demand that the Dean issue a retraction. Dean Kagan stood up and said that this was a free speech issue because it was – the parody is written, directed, and performed by students. Having been in it for my tenure at HLS, I can assure you that there is no faculty advisor in the writer’s room. There was barely any HLS funding of it, in fact, because the Parody generated so much revenue that it could afford to fund its own costs. The websites of, say, the HLS Dems or the HLS FedSoc are the creations of those groups and the content of them shouldn’t be something that the Dean of the law school should be responsible for.

    As for Kagan’s lack of response to the issue, I can assure you that the Parody of subsequent years was on a short leash because of the incident mentioned. Following years involved close consultation on the script to make sure that it wasn’t distasteful or offensive. If you find someone who saw both the Parody spoken of in this article and the Parody of the next few years, you’d be hard pressed to get them to say that it had similarly offensive content. I personally think that Kagan did a great job of protecting the free speech of her students while ensuring that the problem wouldn’t recur.

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