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

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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.

This program aired on April 23, 2012.

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Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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