Warren's Former Students See Her As Anything But ‘Elitist’

BOSTON — The race between Republican Sen. Scott Brown and his most likely Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren, is looking to be one of the most interesting races of this year.

At the moment, each candidate is trying to cast the other in the least appealing light. Warren has tried to link Brown to Wall Street fat cats and Brown’s campaign has labeled Warren as an “elitist Harvard professor.” As we follow this race over the next few months, we will dig deeper into all facets of each candidate.

At Harvard, Warren is a popular professor.

In fact, since 1995, when she joined the faculty, she’s twice been voted best professor by the graduating class. And she gets nothing but glowing reviews from her former students. We reached out to more than 60 people, and we tried in particular to reach out to conservatives — members of the Federalist Society and former law clerks of Supreme Court Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. We could not find one former student with anything negative to say about Warren.

“The famous story about her is that every year, she walks into class, and usually professors will give a little spiel, they’ll introduce themselves, something nice and warmhearted and fuzzy just to kick off the class,” says Harvard law student Alyssa Martin. “She strides in, right away calls on someone, says: ‘What is assumpsit?’ ”

“Oh, God!” exclaims former student Adam Levitin, now a Georgetown University law professor, laughing as he remembers the opening of his first class with Warren, when she asked she same question. “It’s an action for breach of an oral contract. 10:02 [a.m.], that was the first thing she asked a guy named Andy Oldham, who was the unfortunate victim of that. He looked like a deer in the headlights.”

Oldham, now a deputy solicitor general for the state of Texas, was not able to get permission from his bosses to talk to us about Warren.

“That’s always what she does, every year, and assumpsit is one of the words that appears in our first cases, and the whole point being to make sure you understand every single thing about the case,” Martin says.

“That’s a moment that is tattooed on the brains of everyone who was in that class, all 80 of us,” Levitin says.

Martin, who is also volunteering on Warren’s campaign, says not many people know this, but Warren asks the question because on Warren’s first day of law school, one of her professors asked her a question like that.

“And she didn’t know it and she was freaking out,” Martin says. “She’s like here in class, and ‘Oh, my God! I have no idea what she’s talking about!’ And she ended up having this existential crisis like, ‘Oh my God! Am I in the right place?’ Then she realized: ‘You know what? This is the lesson I learn. Understand every word. Make sure you understand everything. Don’t assume you understand what’s going on.’ ”

What’s driving Warren’s rigorous approach comes from what Levitin describes as her own insecurity.

“I remember her saying once that despite having done this for years, she’s still nervous about it,” Levitin says. “As the first day of class approaches, end of August, she says: ‘I start to feel ill because I get nervous about how the teaching is going to go this year. Am I going to be able to do a good job training these students?’ So even someone who is so poised and so practiced in this, she cares about it so much that it worries her.”

Warren’s students say some professors and some schools emphasize just knowing the doctrines, just knowing what the rules are. Martin says Warren tries to get her students to think about whether, for example, when judges make a decision, they’re just trying to apply a rule, or they’re exercising their own private sense of equity or justice.

“They kind of call it legal realism,” Martin says. “It’s like: what was really going on behind each case? I think that’s a really important approach and something that she consistently emphasized.”

Warren’s former students also say it’s important to her to encourage women to take the money courses.

Her women students say it frustrates Warren when women who are interested in how the law can affect social change or who are interested in questions of justice almost always end up going into the human rights courses and not into the economic courses. They think she wishes more women law students would realize that everything is affected by money. And Levitin, who was also her chief of staff on the congressional TARP oversight board, says she’s been an inspiration to a generation of law professors.

“She’s mentored a large number of people who have gone on to be law professors around the country,” Levitin says. “I’d say she’s one of two people who’ve been the feeder for most of the younger bankruptcy law professors in the country.”

“You kind of think that when you go to a place like Harvard Law with all these big names that they’re off doing their own projects and they don’t have time for you, but she really does care,” Martin says.

Both Martin and Levitin share Warren’s political views. One former student, Isaac Lidsky, now the CEO of a construction company in Florida, doesn’t necessarily share Warren’s political views.

“You know, she’s definitely written a couple of books and published a lot of papers that set out her view, which seems to be one that kind of guards the rights of the ‘little man’ at all costs kind of thing,” Lidsky says.

But even Lidsky has nothing but praise for Warren as a teacher.

“I certainly thought she was a great bankruptcy professor,” Lidsky says. “I learned a lot from her and I think for the most part the students on campus liked having her as a teacher.”

Out of the more than 60 former students we reached out to, Lidsky’s was the most lukewarm reaction to Warren we could find. And clearly he thinks she is a great professor. It doesn’t really seem to matter what students’ political views are — all agree on this point.

One final note: When we told Warren we were interviewing her former students, she said she wanted to talk to us about them. But although we reached out four times to her campaign to schedule the interview, it never happened. Perhaps her campaign wants to play down Warren’s “professor” image.

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  • Carl Gardner

    Why would Mr. Oldham require permission from his bosses to speak you about a former professor, who just happens to be running for the US Senate?

    • http://www.wbur.org/people/fthys Fred Thys

      I don’t know. He told me he’d be happy to talk to me about her, but that first he had to get permission from his bosses. 

  • Vprg

    Harvard is an elite institution, just look at the number of American Presidents who attended the school.  It is disingenuous to say the elite students don’t see Elizabeth Warren as an elite, she in a contemporary.

    • http://www.wbur.org/people/fthys Fred Thys

      What I found most remarkable was the extent to which Warren’s students said she was willing to go to bat for them, that she was unusually generous with her time that way, even though she was one of the most prominent professors at Harvard Law School.

      • Francis

        Elitism is not a transitive property that attaches from a revered educational institution like Harvard Law School to its faculty. 

        First, what makes HLS  elite is that the school is in a position to accept the top students in the nation. Free market adherents respect that as a measure of the schools value to its graduates, both in quality and breadth of education, and in the opportunities available as a result.  Warren’s students say she is a superlative teacher and that, combined  with her remarkable efforts to help her former students land job opportunities, portrays a picture of a highly competent educator who values  the application — the usefulness — of the education over the education  itself.  What example could better illustrate that her values are not elitist but about comprehensive competence and the opportunity of her former students to put the education to use? 

    • LD

      I grew up on a farm in upstate NY, raised by a single mom, $100K in debt when I graduated with my masters from Harvard so I could become a teacher in Brockton.  You cannot label a person an elitist just because they work hard to get good grades and bust their butts to go to the best schools possible.  You can however label them smart and industrious.

  • Liz

    Super–she’s a great Professor and lawyers love her.  I think you just made Scott Brown’s point for him.  There is nothing to suggest she would make a good Senator for our state.  And much to suggest she would create even more gridlock with her views.

    • Anonymous

      Brown would continue to be a vote for Mitch McConnell who declared that his single most important priority is to defeat Obama.  How is that not creating gridlock? 

      • johnie

        Yea, its not like the democrats did what ever Reid and Pelosi told them how to vote. Please.

  • Lynnrockets


    Isn’t Scott Brown a lawyer also, only he’s never even been a professor to be liked? Wasn’t Scott Brown liked by Wall Street? After all, Forbes magazine named him as one of “Wall Street’s favorite congressmen.’’

  • Anonymous

    The truck and the barn coat aren’t enough.  Scott Brown needs to start wearing overalls or I’m not voting for that elitist. 

  • mar64

    Elizabeth Warren wasn’t born
    at Harvard. She attended all public universities. She came from a time period
    when we invested in our young people, so they had a chance to make it,
    too.There were other Government Programs back then, like the GI Bill,
    that allowed our parents to be able to afford to buy their first home, even with
    a modest income.About 30 years ago, we changed course and decided that
    were only going to help those who have already made it BIG. We started saying,
    “who cares about anyone but myself”.A couple weeks ago, Senator Scott
    Brown chose to continue “tax subsidies” to Big Oil Companies, who already make
    Billions in Profits. This is one example of how we changed our course. We
    changed our priorities.Those tax subsidies were worth billions of
    dollars. Couldn’t we have put that money to better use? The oil companies don’t
    need these tax subsidies. They already have Billions.We could have used
    that money to invest in the American People. We could have used that money to
    fund our public colleges and universities, so that our young people have the
    option of obtaing an education that they can afford again…

  • http://twitter.com/easyashell Ed Ellis

    You mean Harvard Law School students? Yup, real “salt o’ the Earth” folks they are…….

  • Wolverine

    ‘Lies for Many Moons’ Warren soon go the way of Coakley buffalo.

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