Elena Kagan has become famous as being the dean that built the ice rink at Harvard Law School. Nostalgic images of skaters laughing and spinning away their exam troubles come to mind—sleigh rides, Currier & Ives and all.
In reality, it went almost unused, at least when I was a student, because there were no more than a handful of students who actually owned ice skates and had time between classes to take a jaunt around the rink. (It has since been closed due to budget issues. It was hard to justify the expense given its underuse.) It was a brilliant feel-good political move to reach out to students on campus, but it was almost entirely symbolic.
The same could be said for her treatment of the military on campus. Robert Merrill, an active-duty marine while a Harvard Law School student wrote of her outreach to the military while he was a student there. She hosted Veterans’ Day dinners and personally wrote to Merrill to wish him luck as a JAG officer. But when the rubber hit the road, she used the military as a pawn to score her own political points.
There are two ways to interpret Kagan’s refusal to allow military recruiting on campus. On one side are those who believe it didn’t really affect recruiting levels at all, because the student-run Veterans Association was able to pick up the slack. If that is the case, then her application of the school’s non-discrimination policy against the military actually had no effect, and was a purely symbolic gesture. Is it really appropriate to take a stand against the military, during wartime no less, for a purely symbolic gain? And let’s not forget that she returned to the law school’s prior no-recruiting policy under cover of an appellate court decision that didn’t even apply to Harvard, using legal arguments so dubious that a unanimous Supreme Court ruled against her.
On the other hand, the ban may have actually affected recruitment. It certainly burdened the student veterans to some degree and those seeking to join because they couldn’t rely on the normal recruitment process. They may have continued or even increased military recruitment, but it would not have been because of Dean Kagan, it would have been in spite of her. But if that is so, then for all her thanks to veterans and plying them with meals and encouragement, at the end of the day Kagan was working against them.
Neither of these options is something Kagan should be proud of and neither recommends her to be a member of the Supreme Court. She cozied up to the students who were veterans, but when it came to action they were left like the lonely ice rink, out in the cold.