Elena Kagan: Timing Is Everything

If you thought Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's CV was taken from the playbook of David Brooks' "The Organization Kid," Mr. Brooks agrees:

I have to confess my first impression of Kagan is a lot like my first impression of many Organization Kids. She seems to be smart, impressive and honest -- and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing.

Two thoughts on that. First, would Mr. Brooks really prefer a brilliant, outspoken, innovative liberal, a Scalia or Bork of the Left? And second, doesn't his model of success omit luck?

In the same issue of the Times, a profile of Supreme Court Nominee Elena Kagan's career details her impressive turnaround of a divided Harvard Law School:

Hiring had slowed in part because the faculty was divided into ideological factions and each could stop a new hire. Ms. Kagan convinced her colleagues the law school needed fresh blood. She went after star professors at other universities and helped raise significant amounts of money to lure them to Cambridge. When she became dean, in July 2003, there were 81 full-time permanent members of the faculty, according to the law school. By the time she left, in March 2009, she had added 43. Taking into account retirements and other losses, the net expansion during her tenure was 22, an astonishing number in less than six years

Her hiring binge became the subject of an April Fool's parody in 2008 in the Harvard Law Record. "Dean Kagan Hires Every Law Professor in the Country," the headline blared.

Of course Ms. Kagan deserves acclaim for seizing opportunities and restoring faculty and student morale. But consider the timing.

When Harvard President Larry Summers appointed Ms. Kagan, the University's endowment was surging in the early stages of the Wall Street bubble, with an aggressive investment policy. As the Harvard Crimson explained in January 2004:

Harvard's endowment growth of 12.5 percent was four times larger than the average return on investments for most universities last year.

The average endowment growth for an institution of higher learning was 3 percent for the year that ended June 30, 2003 (FY 2003), according to an annual study of 723 American colleges released Tuesday by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO).

And when accounting for the 2.2 percent inflation rate and the fact that, on average, universities spend about 5.4 percent of their endowments per year, the average university endowment actually shrank in FY 2003.

After declining for two consecutive years, Harvard's endowment reached $19.3 billion last fiscal year, the highest it has ever been in the University's history.

A few years earlier, Ms. Kagan could not have contemplated such a bold expansion to diversify the faculty and break the usual logjams. A few years later retrenchment would have been the challenge. Kagan to her credit seized the opportunity, improving the quality of student life and the curriculum to become one of the most popular administrators in recent Ivy League history. It helped that she was a formidable fundraiser, but the paper prosperity of the bubble years didn't hurt. And the same economic crisis that clinched the Obama victory brought her to Washington as Solicitor General just as the Harvard endowment was suffering some of the most grievous losses in academia. This isn't criticism of Ms. Kagan, just a footnote to Mr. Brooks's notions of meritocracy.

What really caught my eye, though, was one of the nominee's methods of fostering collegiality, especially now that Harvard students' hot breakfasts have been discontinued. "She created a faculty dining area that served free lunch." So there is such a thing! The catch is, as usual, you need a six-figure salary to be entitled to it.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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