"Perceived As Someone To Be Afraid Of"


We have been given the impression that Elena Kagan was a beloved dean at Harvard Law School and that is certainly borne out by many witnesses. Check out this spontaneous celebration of Kagan by students after she missed out being named president of the university. But not all. Inevitably, some found her style  of management abrasive and her strong leadership rubbed some people the wrong way:

Law School Professor Mark V. Tushnet ’67 acknowledged that he had heard “that she would lose her temper,” but he added that Kagan led the school with a “firm hand” like a good manager. Kagan was “willing to fire people that needed to be fired,” Tushnet said.

Few faculty members interviewed for this article voiced displeasure with Kagan’s management style, but some staffers and administrators said that the former dean’s high-energy, ambitious agenda placed a strain on their working relationships. Former director of the Law School library Harry S. Martin III ’65 observed that some staff members working under Kagan “didn’t seem to get along with her, didn’t warm to her.”

In the “pursuit of excellence,” Kagan set the bar high for her colleagues and created “a culture of incredibly high expectations and high stakes,” according to former Registrar staff member Leslie Sutton-Smith. “It was not as much a collaborative effort as it was making sure everything was right before it got to Elena,” Sutton-Smith said. “You have to come to the table 150 percent prepared because she will find a hole in whatever your argument is.” “As a result of that, she could be perceived as someone to be afraid of,” she added.

In pushing for change, Kagan often displayed an insensitivity to the opinions and feelings of others, according to Maura H. Kelley, a faculty assistant who worked at the Law School for over 25 years. “If you go against her, she doesn’t take very kindly to that,” said Kelley, who was familiar with staff assistants that worked under Kagan. “If she presents an idea, she wants everyone to accept it immediately without question, without debate, without input.” ...

one professor, who requested to remain anonymous to maintain relations with the Law School, said that Kagan’s tense relations with staff provide clues to how she may conduct herself as a justice.

“The treatment of subordinates is definitely relevant to her values and our assessment of her as a progressive justice,” the professor said, adding that Kagan’s prowess as a “consensus builder” who would be able to sway Justice Anthony Kennedy, for example, is undermined by her temper, which the professor believes may hinder her ability to work well with others on the bench.

“Justice Kennedy would not like that,” the professor said.

(Photo: Tim Sloan/Getty.)