Fifty years after admitting women, law school hires woman dean

The federal court's loss is Harvard Law School's gain. Two years after the US Senate let Elena Kagan's nomination to a federal circuit court lapse, the law school has selected her as its first female dean.

Few are more pleasantly surprised by the appointment than the handful of women who graduated in the first class that accepted women exactly 50 years ago.

"It sends a real message," says Charlotte Armstrong, who was among the first batch of women to attend the school.

During their orientation in 1953, Harvard Law's dean asked why the women bothered showing up. More than a decade later, certain professors would only recognize women students on Ladies' Day, recalls Mary Mullarkey, who went on to serve as chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court after graduating from Harvard Law in 1968.

Yet Ms. Armstrong says that

Ms. Kagan's gender is far from her best qualification. "She's brilliant, she's energetic, she's focused, and she's passionate about the law school," Armstrong says.

Even at a school famous for churning out overachievers, Kagan's résumé stands out.

Just 20 years after graduating, Kagan clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, served as President Clinton's second-highest ranking domestic policy adviser, and taught at both the University of Chicago and Harvard, where she became a visiting professor in 1999.

On taking over her new post, Kagan pledges to continue cutting first-year class sizes and increasing faculty-student interaction as current dean Robert Clark has done. In the process, the school has begun to shed its reputation as cut-throat and impersonal.

Moving plans may also top her agenda if Harvard's president Lawrence Summers decides to shift Harvard Law across the Charles River into Boston.

If approved, though, Kagan says that the move itself wouldn't happen until after she has already stepped down.

Some lawyers may consider a seat on the federal bench the pinnacle of their career, but Kagan says she is grateful the Senate Judiciary Committee let her nomination expire.

"There's no place I'd rather be," she says, "and no job that I'd rather have."

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