Today’s Globe has a front-page story on how Elizabeth Warren got to where she is today. It’s a very interesting read, both in a big-picture sense (it’s an interesting story), and in that it does a nice job of addressing some specific right-wing talking points about Warren.
I’m not going to summarize the piece – you should go read the whole thing. But I want to point out a couple of things that struck me.
- She’s tough, ambitious, and has probably pissed some people off along the way. The story is pretty clear on this point.
[A wide range of professors and administrators interviewed by the Globe] said Warren rose through the mostly male, intensely political world of academia on the strength of her unbridled — to some, off-putting — ambition as well as groundbreaking research that brought her national attention and grant money…. Behind the scenes, some of her peers bristled at her ascent, viewing her as smart and capable but also as a climber with sharp elbows…. As Warren’s career took root, however, her marriage was unraveling. The Oklahoma teenager Jim Warren had married had turned into a hard-charging professor whose priorities, she said, did not include having a home-cooked dinner on the table each night…. Warren was growing restless at a university [the University of Houston] without much national clout…. “She was, in many ways, almost the most ambitious single person on that faculty at that point,” [UPenn law professor Colin] Diver said. “And that’s saying something.”
Here’s the point, made by University of Chicago law professor Douglas Baird – an eminent bankruptcy law scholar whose approach to bankruptcy could hardly be further from Warren’s (he’s a hardcore law and economics guy, she’s an empiricist who rejects law and economics as “seductively oversimplified, an abstract theory with no grounding in reality”):
Baird, the Chicago law professor who was once Warren’s sparring partner, said: “To the extent that people criticize Elizabeth for having sharp elbows, that was at a time where, if you were a woman who didn’t have sharp elbows, you were going to be run over.”
I have some personal experience with this sort of thing. I was a law clerk for former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, whose “first woman to ever…” list is so long that I can’t even remember everything that’s on it. She’s an extraordinary person for whom I am deeply honored to have worked. But let’s be clear about this: she’s probably the toughest person I’ve ever met, and she was never short on ambition. It’s no accident that people who shatter barriers tend to be the types who aren’t afraid to break a few eggs on the way to making an omelet.
So to those who think Elizabeth Warren is too ambitious, or too strident, or too whatever, I say this: that’s exactly what I want in a Senator. I want someone who is not afraid of standing up existing power structures because she thinks they are biased toward the already-powerful at the expense of others. I want someone who will make waves when waves need to be made. I want someone who doesn’t see bipartisanship as an end in itself if the folks on the other side are simply wrong (I’ve written several times that I think bipartisanship for its own sake is just a fetish, though a widely-practiced one among the punditocracy). I want a fighter. There’s really no doubt who that is in this Senate race.
- The end of Cherokee-gate. The Globe story effectively demolishes the myth that Warren tried to get ahead in the academic world by claiming Native American heritage. According to the story, “in two dozen interviews with the Globe, a wide range of professors and administrators who recruited or worked with Warren said her ethnic background played no role in her hiring.” And several academics went on the record to say that they had no idea of Warren’s heritage. One found the notion laughable:
Robert H. Mundheim, the dean who hired Warren at Penn, laughed when asked whether he thought of her as a minority.
“Somebody who’s got a small percentage of Native American blood — is that a minority?” he said. “I don’t think I ever knew that she had those attributes and that would not have made much of a difference.”
At the time, elite East Coast law schools were facing protests from minority students and activists who wanted them to diversify their faculty. But they were not on the lookout for Native American scholars, said Colin S. Diver, who succeeded Mundheim as dean at Penn Law during Warren’s time there.
“In Philadelphia and Cambridge, what mattered was African-American and Latino,” Diver said. “That’s where the pressure was coming … and that’s what you meant when you said ‘students of color.’”
Whether or not considerations like those should play into law school faculty hiring decisions is a topic for another day. The relevant point here is that it’s quite clear that, in Warren’s case, they did not (as I have already demonstrated in the case of Harvard). End of story.
- Misconduct? No. The Globe also discusses a story that the Breitbart gang is particularly fond of, namely, the accusations of a now-deceased law professor at Rutgers (Warren’s alma mater, ironically), Philip Shuchman, that Warren and her colleagues had committed “scientific misconduct” in some of their bankruptcy research. It is well-known that two independent inquiries cleared Warren and her colleagues, as the Globe notes:
Shuchman’s charges were dismissed by both the university [of Texas] and the National Science Foundation.
The University of Texas’s investigation determined that Warren and her coauthors did not engage in scientific misconduct and “their behavior demonstrates the highest ethical standards.” The National Science Foundation also found there was no misconduct and said Shuchman’s complaints amounted to the kind of scholarly dispute best handled in academic journals.
The Globe adds some useful context by outlining exactly what it was that Shuchman was complaining about:
Writing in the Rutgers Law Review in 1990, he accused Sullivan, Warren, and Westbrook of “repeated instances of scientific misconduct,” for failing to make their raw data available to him so he could replicate their findings and verify their accuracy, a standard procedure in the academic world. In his review and in a 60-page complaint to the National Science Foundation, he also alleged that the authors exaggerated the originality of their work by failing to credit others.
Shuchman’s charges were grave, akin to academic fraud, and prompted the University of Texas and National Science Foundation to launch investigations.
Warren and her collaborators told investigators that they had offered Shuchman a complete list of the cases they sampled, but without the debtors’ names and court file numbers, since that information was never entered into their database. They said they had an agreement with the National Science Foundation to exclude such information, to protect the debtors’ privacy.
Sullivan also said they credited Shuchman in their book, calling him a “pioneer” in the field of bankruptcy research, but did not cite much of his work because it was unsupported by data, disproved by other studies, or wrong.
I’m not one to speak ill of the dead, and Shuchman is no longer around to explain exactly what it was that he was complaining about. Let’s just suffice it to say that, if the Globe’s description is accurate, I’m not losing any sleep over whether the two inquiries that cleared Warren and her colleagues were some sort of whitewash, as the Breitbart crowd would have you believe.
- Dr. Phil. When you’re done with the Globe story, you should check out David Bernstein’s piece from earlier this year that discusses Warren’s “Dr. Phil” years. Warren was a regular guest on the immensely popular Dr. Phil show from 2003-2005 (she joined the Harvard faculty in 1995) talking about exactly what you would expect: financial issues that affect regular middle-class folk. According to Bernstein, “[a]t the time, she says, not all of her colleagues in the hallowed halls of academia were quite so impressed with her new direction. Many looked down their noses at her TV exploits.” That’s not hard to imagine; one doubts that the Harvard Law faculty boasts too many regular Dr. Phil watchers. But it’s easy to imagine that Warren’s experience with the Dr. Phil audience – likely quite different from the audiences she was used to in law schools and in government hearing rooms – is a big part of why she’s been so remarkably successful for a first-time political candidate.