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When Warren Came To Harvard Law, The School Was In The Throes Of Change07:10
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Langdell Hall at Harvard Law School (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Langdell Hall at Harvard Law School (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In the fall of 1992, only five women had tenure on the faculty at Harvard Law School.

But the historic institution was in the throes of change.

The previous spring, students had occupied the hall in front of the dean's office, in part to protest the lack of diversity on the faculty.

Jill Newman was one of the students.

"There had been a few years of protests building up and demands for faculty diversity, and in particular the appointment of a woman of color," Newman says. "There had been a lawsuit filed by the students."

"We were put on trial," recalls William Anspach, who was also in the group of students who camped out in the offices. "It was an administrative hearing. It turned into a big production where there were hundreds of students who attended, and it was a two-day trial, and in the end, there was warning put in our file which was removed when we graduated. But it was quite a spectacle. It was pretty crazy. That was a period when there was a huge amount of turmoil."

Anspach still has some old material that protesters handed out. It shows that the number of women on the faculty had actually gone down in the early '90s.

"It says: 'Net change in female faculty since 1990,' " Anspach reads. "It says negative two. Then there's a footnote: 'This figure will improve to negative one if Elizabeth Warren accepts a position here.' "

Elizabeth Warren, in a photo from the 1986 yearbook at the University of Texas School of Law (Courtesy of Peregrinus/Tarlton Law Library)
Elizabeth Warren, in a photo from the 1986 yearbook at the University of Texas School of Law (Courtesy of Peregrinus/Tarlton Law Library)

Warren had arrived on campus in 1992 as a visiting professor.

"Elizabeth came when Harvard Law School was becoming a better place, with more gender diversity, more intellectual diversity, and students were beginning to become excited to be at Harvard Law School," professor Richard Fallon Jr. says. "I think Elizabeth was a significant though by no means the exclusive factor moving us into that new better era, a prominent woman professor who so visibly cared about and excited her students."

Former colleagues and students say Warren was an engaging and caring teacher. Students even held a vigil in her support outside the building where the faculty was gathered to consider offering her tenure.

Professor Laurence Tribe says the students need not have fretted.

"They were always worried that we didn't have enough women on the faculty," Tribe remembers. "But there was never any question about her tenure."

Warren's Unique Scholarship And Way With Students

It was professor Andrew Kaufman who first suggested Harvard invite Warren to teach. At the time, she was a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. Kaufman had been invited by Warren to a conference, and she participated in a presentation he gave.

"Maybe blown away is too strong a term, but I was mightily impressed," Kaufman says. "I said: 'Are you free for dinner?' I thought, this is a really impressive person. I wrote a note to our appointments committee."

"Elizabeth was a significant ... factor moving us into that new better era, a prominent woman professor who so visibly cared about and excited her students."

Harvard's Richard Fallon Jr.

Warren was doing something unusual in legal scholarship. She was going to courthouses to look up the stories of actual people who had filed for bankruptcy. She had co-written a groundbreaking book on the subject.

Professor Charles Fried, who served on the appointments committee that proposed Warren for tenure, says Harvard really did not have a professor interested in personal bankruptcy.

"She was," Fried remembers. "So that's one reason she came to attention."

As a presidential candidate, Warren has apologized over her claims of tribal heritage. Harvard professors who spoke to WBUR said they didn't know that Warren claims some American Indian ancestry until long after she was hired.

At Harvard, Kaufman remembers teaching right after Warren in the same classroom.

"I went to one of her classes," Kaufman recalls. "She ran a class like nobody else here. She called on people one after another, one after another, rapid fire, back and forth, for the whole period. If I had been a student in there, I would have been exhausted. Excited, but exhausted. You run into somebody like that once in a while."

"The students loved it, because it was so high-voltage and exciting, [it] kept you on your toes. It'd be a wonderful hour, and you would come away surprised that it had passed that quickly," professor Alan Dershowitz says.

He remembers that for years, he and Warren shared the same group of first-year students. Both taught by using the Socratic method: just asking questions, letting the students figure out the answers. "And it was really known as the Socratic section, because the students got me at 8 in the morning and her at 10 in the morning, and as some students said, by the end of the day, it was really exhausting because both of us put our students through the paces," Dershowitz says.

Professor Tribe says Warren "was probably the best teacher here over the years." Many recall how she engaged with her students.

"I actually sat in the front row in her class, and she, before class, would just be chatting with people in the front row," remembers Newman, one of Warren's first students at Harvard. "'Hey! How was your weekend? How are you doing?' She was much more approachable and more friendly. Other professors didn't really do that. They'd be looking down at their notes and not making eye contact with students. She was definitely different in that way."

Newman's boyfriend and future husband was in the same class. He had roles in musical performances at Harvard.

"And she would go to all the shows, and then she would come back to class that Monday and rave about how wonderful he was," Newman says. "She would rave to him: 'You were so good! I came twice this weekend to your show,' and then whenever he wasn't in class, she would go: 'Where's Scott?' She had a real rapport with us. ... She was really making conversation and knew what was happening at the law school. I don't know how many professors would go to the musicals."

By the time she was offered tenure at Harvard, Warren was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. It took two more years for her to move back to Cambridge, in 1995.

Professor Howell Jackson remembers that when she did, Warren tried to attract women and students of color to Harvard.

"[She] was very active in trying to get a more diverse set of students into the school, and lobbying them to come," Jackson recalls. "She was Pied Piper in some ways for Harvard Law School."

Added Tribe: "She went out of her way to make sure we had students who had demonstrated through life experience that all of their talk about doing public service was real."

Meeting Obama

In this 2008 file photo, then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama listens to then-Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren during a discussion about predatory lending at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. (Alex Brandon/AP)
In this 2008 file photo, then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama listens to then-Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren during a discussion about predatory lending at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. (Alex Brandon/AP)

It was as a Harvard law professor that Warren first ventured into politics.

In 2005, she testified against congressional efforts, championed by then-Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, to make it harder for people to file for bankruptcy.

After the financial crash of 2008, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada asked her to oversee the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Her job was to make sure the federal government was not overpaying to take bad loans off the books of financial institutions.

And while at Harvard, Warren first met Barack Obama, who would put her on a path to Washington.

Professor David Wilkins remembers that the meeting was at his house in Cambridge, one of Obama's first fundraisers outside Illinois as he ran for the U.S. Senate.

"One of the people who came was Elizabeth Warren," Wilkins says, "and I had told Barack that she was coming, and he was very excited because he had been working on predatory lending in the Illinois state Senate, and so when Elizabeth came, I took her over to meet Barack."

Warren told the story at the University of Arkansas in 2011:

He holds his hand out. This is just like in the movies. And as I hold my hand out and as our fingers touch, he says to me: 'Predatory lending.' And then he just goes. And I never get a word in. I never get a word in! And I'm just standing there. My hand's still in his hand and he's talking. And finally, he gets all the way to the end, and he gets this big grin. And he says: 'Well?' And I say: 'You had me at predatory lending.'

Later, as president, Obama charged Warren with creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the first agency whose sole job is to protect consumers from financial institutions.

And when it became clear there was too much opposition in the Senate to having Warren run the agency she created, Obama and Reid persuaded her to run for the Senate herself.

Have a story idea, question or feedback? Email the politics team: politics@wbur.org.

This segment aired on October 31, 2019.

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Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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