The dean of Harvard Law School, Elena Kagan, is emerging as a leading contender for the high-profile post of Harvard president as the university struggles to restore decorum and direction after the resignation of its head, Lawrence Summers.
Ms. Kagan, 45, is credited with overseeing a renaissance at the law school during her nearly three years as dean, and many of her fans believe she could achieve the same for the entire university if given the chance.
"I would be surprised if she were not a serious candidate," a Harvard law professor, William Stuntz, said yesterday. "It's not an incredibly long list and clearly she's on it."
A Harvard law graduate and a major donor to the school, Finn M.W. Caspersen, said Ms. Kagan would have to be considered for Harvard's top job. "She's a good, solid candidate, probably as good a candidate as anybody inside the school," he said.
Professors say Ms. Kagan's greatest accomplishment at the law school was breaking a logjam that had slowed new faculty appointments to a trickle. Some of the tenure proposals were blocked by ideological disputes and others by more parochial concerns.
"The school of course was very, very strong but was suffering from a kind of blockage, an inability to make the large number of appointments it had to make with an aging faculty," one law professor, Charles Fried, said. "She just took that in hand."
Mr. Fried said Ms. Kagan bridged the divide, but she managed to win the trust of various factions at the school. "I don't know how she did it," he said.
About 20 new offers have been extended to faculty since Ms. Kagan took office. They have included several conservatives, such as a former Justice Department official under President Bush, Jack Goldsmith, and an expert on separation of-powers issues, John Manning.
This has led to suggestions from some quarters that Ms. Kagan was pushing the school to the right, a curious assertion since she served for several years in the White House under President Clinton, including as the number two official for domestic policy.
"She is not trying to build up one faction or another," said Mr. Fried, who was appointed solicitor general under President Reagan.
Mr. Fried said that while several conservatives were hired, Ms. Kagan also snatched a left-leaning scholar, Mark Tushnet, from Georgetown. He is an adherent of critical legal studies, an approach which holds that the law is often used by the powerful to perpetuate unfairness.
Mr. Fried said that appointment also signaled Ms. Kagan's aplomb. "You could never have succeeded with Tushnet unless people who have an allergy to that kind of thing felt she'd give fair consideration to their candidates," Mr. Fried said.
That kind of consensus building is one of the factors prompting talk about Ms. Kagan as a possible antidote to the dissent that has riven the broader campus over the past year or two. Mr. Summers was felled largely by disputes with the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, which cast a no confidence vote against him last year and was poised to do so again last month had he not agreed to step down. That faculty bitterly resisted several efforts by Mr. Summers on issues ranging from finances to Ph.D.-granting authority to the curriculum.
Mr. Stuntz said it was possible Ms. Kagan could do for Harvard what she has done at Harvard Law. "She's come into an institution that needed to get moving, that was not moving in as positive a direction as it ought to be and she got it moving," he said. "She has a combination of very good substantive judgment and excellent interpersonal skills and political skills. She knows how to get from here to there, and she's very good at picking the 'theres.'"
A former member of Harvard's board of overseers and a colleague of Ms. Kagan in the Clinton Administration, Jamie Gorelick, also praised the Harvard Law dean. "I'm a big admirer of hers," Ms. Gorelick said.
Ms. Gorelick, who served as deputy attorney general, acknowledged that while Ms. Kagan was respected at the White House, she was sometimes seen as brusque and overly demanding. "She was extremely aggressive when she was in the White House in trying to carry out the president's agenda," Ms. Gorelick said. "She was not the most popular person there in part because of that."
Many of those same claims were leveled at Mr. Summers, but at Harvard Ms. Kagan appears to have shed that reputation.
However, Mr. Stuntz, who was brought to Harvard in part by Ms. Kagan, said he wasn't completely sure whether she could succeed where Mr. Summers failed. "I don't have any question about her qualities, my only question is whether Arts & Sciences is willing to be shaken up," Mr. Stuntz said. "I think that's really the central question the university faces. If they aren't, the choice of president doesn't matter very much. If they are, Elena is as good as it gets."
At the law school, Ms. Kagan has boosted student morale by quickly renovating gym facilities and classrooms. She has also pursued projects that could ruffle feathers, such as the construction of a temporary ice skating rink in the middle of campus. Ms. Kagan charms professors as well, and has on occasion gamely joined all-male faculty poker games.
Few criticisms of her deanship have emerged, although she was faulted for a mild response to allegations of plagiarism against two prominent professors.
While one factor in Mr. Summers's demise was his suggestion that some science professors move to facilities in Boston, Ms. Kagan won kudos for overseeing consideration of a similar move at the law school. "She managed a highly fractious and potentially fraught debate," Ms. Gorelick said.
Ms. Kagan ultimately concluded the law school should not move, but renovate and expand at its current site. That conclusion might undermine her ability to convince other faculties that a Boston move is a good idea.
Another potential obstacle for Ms. Kagan is her relatively limited Harvard pedigree. She was a Princeton undergraduate, then studied at Oxford. She attended Harvard Law School, but launched her academic career at the University of Chicago. She returned to Harvard as a visiting professor in 1999 and took the dean's post in 2003.
Ms. Kagan's fans note that a former Harvard president who will return in an interim capacity this summer, Derek Bok, was law school dean for only three years before becoming president in 1971. However, Mr. Bok had spent a decade on the Harvard faculty before he became law school dean.
The only other Harvard figure mentioned as a presidential possibility as often as Ms. Kagan is a history professor who serves as dean of the Radcliffe Institute, Drew Faust. One other prospect with Harvard ties, Nannerl Keohane, seems to have taken herself out of consideration. Ms. Keohane, a member of Harvard's governing corporation and a former president of Duke University, said last month she was not interested in running Harvard.
"You can certainly set that rumor to rest," she told Duke's student newspaper, the Chronicle. "The answer is clearly, 'No.'"
A spokesman for Ms. Kagan, Michael Armini, said she would not be interviewed for a story about her presidential prospects. "She's focused like a laser beam on being dean of the law school," he said.
The university's chief spokesman, Alan Stone, declined to speculate about possible candidates. "People are getting way ahead of themselves," said Mr. Stone, who also served in the Clinton White House. He said the search committee had not yet been formed, but would be shortly.
Mr. Fried fretted that Ms. Kagan's selection as Harvard president could derail another possibility for her, the Supreme Court. "My ambition for her is that when eventually there's a Democratic president, which I suppose there will eventually, unfortunately, have to be, she'd be a first rate candidate for the Supreme Court," he said.