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Harvard's Success Secret: Free Coffee

Harvard Law School is in the process of reinventing itself as a more vital, nimble educational institution. And its turnaround is due, at least in part, to free coffee. "As it turns out," explains Dean Elena Kagan, "you can buy more student happiness per dollar by giving people free coffee than anything else I've discovered."

Kagan laughed as she said that, because there is more to Harvard's turnaround than caffeine-pumped students. As Drake Bennett recounts in Sunday's Boston Globe, Harvard is shaking off its image as a factory funneling bright young minds into corporate law firms and as a place characterized by estranged students and fractious faculty.

Over the past five years, however, that has begun to shift dramatically. After an unprecedented hiring binge, Harvard has assembled what many legal scholars believe is the most formidable law faculty in the country, with preeminent experts in most major fields - many poached from other top schools. The percentage of accepted students who say "yes" to Harvard Law is at its highest in two decades. Surveys find students happier than at any point in recent memory, and by nearly all accounts, so is the faculty. Harvard is looking - surprisingly - nimble. And in some corners of the legal academy, there is a suggestion that it is at long last catching up to Yale.

As Brian Leiter puts it, "Harvard Law School was the sleeping giant of legal education and, you know, they woke up." The coffee was part of it, perhaps, but even greater credit goes to the person who served up the coffee, Dean Kagan. Bennett writes that Kagan "has galvanized the place with her ambition and adroit management style, knitting together the faculty, charming the students, and attracting top-flight talent to the school."

The most visible evidence of Harvard's turnaround is faculty hiring, Bennett says. Not only has its faculty grown in number, but also in balance, with the school bringing in a "new wave of young, high-profile public law scholars." Among them: Jack Goldsmith, John Manning, Adrian Vermeule, Noah Feldman, Yochai Benkler, Jody Freeman and, perhaps most notably, Cass Sunstein, whom Kagan called "the preeminent legal scholar of our time." (The article makes no mention of the recently snagged Jonathan Zittrain.)

The article frames Harvard's turnaround in terms of its rivalry with Yale to be the top-ranked law school. As Harvard's faculty has grown younger and more diverse in recent years, Yale's has "been graying in place," Bennett writes. Nearly half its professors are over age 60. How all this will play out in the rankings is anyone's guess, but one effect is clear: top schools are scrambling to hire the best and brightest, waging war against what Leiter describes as Harvard's "endless amounts of money." Perhaps these other schools should sweeten the pot with offers of free coffee?

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on October 20, 2008 at 12:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

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