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FACT: Elizabeth Warren's Family Story Played No Role in Her Hiring

Elizabeth Warren grew up in Oklahoma, and like many people learned about her family from her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Her family is important to her, and based on this understanding, years ago, she occasionally identified as Native American. However, as she has said, she shouldn’t have done it – she is not a person of color or a citizen of a tribe, and she has apologized for furthering confusion around tribal sovereignty, tribal citizenship, and the harm that has resulted, both from identification and her release in 2018 of a DNA test.

Nothing in Elizabeth’s family story played any role in her academic career. Elizabeth graduated from the University of Houston and Rutgers Law School, and became one of the country’s top experts in bankruptcy, commercial law, and the financial pressures facing working families. In 2018, Elizabeth released her personnel files, and in an exhaustive review of her professional history — including over 100 interviews and examining hundreds of documents — the Boston Globe found clear evidence that her background never played a role in her hiring. The people who recruited Elizabeth to her teaching jobs, including Ronald Reagan’s former Solicitor General, all confirm: they hired her because she was an award-winning legal scholar and professor and they were unaware of her family story.

Elizabeth didn’t use her family story to “get into Harvard” – in fact, she never attended Harvard.

Elizabeth was an Oklahoma state debate champion in high school, and she earned a debate scholarship to attend George Washington University. She loved college, but she dropped out of school at 19 and moved to Texas to marry her high school sweetheart, Jim Warren.

Elizabeth got her second chance at the University of Houston, her local commuter college that cost $50 a semester, and she became a public school teacher. After Elizabeth had their first child Amelia, and Jim’s job at IBM moved their family to New Jersey, Elizabeth decided to go back to school. She attended law school at Rutgers University, a public law school. On her law school application, Elizabeth did not apply for admission under the program for minority group students.

Elizabeth’s teaching career began with a substitute night course at Rutgers and a letter to the University of Houston.

When Elizabeth graduated from Rutgers Law, she was eight months pregnant with her son Alex. There were few job prospects for a soon-to-be mother of two. She hung a shingle outside her house and practiced law out of her living room.

In 1977, the Dean of Rutgers Law School, Peter Simmons, called Elizabeth and asked if she would be a last-minute substitute for a legal writing course. Elizabeth said yes.

I interviewed her and was very impressed. It was clear she was an imaginative, warm, empathetic human being. And very smart – her academic work at the school was exemplary.

Peter Simmons, Dean of Rutgers Law School, 1975-1993

Simmons’ original interest in Elizabeth resulted from the strong support she had from the professor who taught her bankruptcy when she was a student – Allan Axelrod. Axelrod was one of the foremost experts in bankruptcy law in the nation and a giant in his field. He was also a big believer in Elizabeth, and he played a key role in training her in commercial law and helping her break into legal academia.

Elizabeth has said that Axelrod had an enormous impact on her life and even dedicated two of the law school textbooks she wrote to him:

“I took every class he taught, and that’s the reason I ended up teaching commercial law on bankruptcy. He changed my life and, and just opened it up.”

Here’s Simmons’s recollection of her hiring and Axelrod’s recommendation:

“I went to our placement director who kept tabs on recent graduates and what they were doing, who might be unemployed and therefore would be interested in a one year appointment and that’s where Elizabeth’s name came from… I checked with several faculty members, especially with Allan Axelrod who was one of our most renowned teachers at the school. And he had had Elizabeth for several courses and spoke very very highly of her.”

Calvin Johnson, a professor at Rutgers at the time, remembers Axelrod’s influence on Elizabeth’s hiring at Rutgers:

“Axelrod is an extraordinarily interesting character. And I think that they were fond of each other. He was the one who got her the job at Rutgers Law School… she was sponsored at Rutgers by the best of the best.”

Unlike some of her later job offers, which required a faculty vote, Dean Peter Simmons was the only person involved in Elizabeth’s hiring. He categorically states that he was completely unaware of her family story when he hired her:

“When I interviewed Elizabeth, I had her resume before me so I knew where she had gone to college and where she’s grown up, so I knew she was from Oklahoma. I didn’t know really anything else about her background… I first learned that there was controversy over her heritage from the newspaper or the television when I first found out that her opponent for her Senate race in Massachusetts was accusing her for short circuiting her hiring process and using her native American background as the basis for her appointment at Harvard. That’s preposterous.”

A year after Simmons offered Elizabeth a job at Rutgers, Jim Warren’s job was transferring him again. Elizabeth wrote to the University of Houston Law School to see if they had any job openings.

John Mixon, a law professor at the University of Houston, was involved in the decision to hire Elizabeth – and the topic of her family backrgound never came up.

“We hired her because she was bright and had great promise. We thought that she would be a fantastic teacher, and she was. She was hired on talent, and it is absurd to suggest anything else.”
She was hired on talent, and it is absurd to suggest anything else.
John Mixon, University of Houston Law Professor

Richard Alderman, a professor at the University of Houston, recalled that at meetings about her hiring, her family background did not come up.

“I do remember the meetings where she was hired, I remember talking to her for the 3 or 4 years she was at Houston. There was never any mention of her Native American heritage.”

Elizabeth had a full-time, tenure-track position at the University of Houston Law School. Her personnel records and faculty candidate profile at the University of Houston indicated that she was listed as white.

In 1981, she received the law school’s Outstanding Teaching Award. Her colleague at the University of Houston, Richard Alderman, remembers how Elizabeth not only was an amazing teacher but also found her teaching specialty at Houston:

“The students loved her, she was a very popular teacher, and she quickly transitioned into commercial law and to contract law which is where she ended up and which is where her expertise really was.”

But as her teaching career was taking off, her marriage to Jim fell apart. She later met, fell in love with, and married a young legal history professor from Massachusetts, Bruce Mann, who left his teaching position at the University of Connecticut to join Elizabeth and her children in Houston. The University of Houston only had a temporary job available for Bruce, so the couple spent a year looking for jobs where they could be in the same city.

Elizabeth was recruited to teach at the University of Texas by a prominent UT law professor.

Russell Weintraub, an esteemed international business law professor at the University of Texas, met Elizabeth when he was a visiting professor at the University of Houston. In 1980, Weintraub wrote to Guy Wellborn, the Appointments Chair at the University of Texas Law School highlighting a scholarly article that Elizabeth had written and recommended her in glowing terms:

“Elizabeth Warren, now Associate Dean and Assistant Professor at Houston, will be on the market this year along with her husband Bruce Mann of Connecticut. Elizabeth is first class in every way. She is bright, insightful, creative, and personable. She teaches Contracts, Regulated Industries, and at Houston ran the first year writing program. If Bruce is as good as Elizabeth, we ought to steal them if we can.”

University of Texas Law Professor Jay Westbrook recalled how enthusiastic Russell Weintraub was and just how much weight his recommendation carried at the time:

“My beloved and recently departed colleague Russell Weintraub, a beloved and internationally famous scholar, and a teacher of mine actually when he was much younger, went to visit at the University of Houston. And that’s when he met Liz. And he came back just full of enthusiasm about this really terrific woman he had met at Houston and we should offer her a visit… Certainly anybody that Russell thought was that good, having really spent time with her… he had really had a chance to get to know her and to test her intellectual abilities and to talk to her students, who were very enthusiastic so. I remember being part of the process that said yes! This is somebody we definitely should have come visit.”

The University of Texas then made Elizabeth and Bruce offers to serve as visiting professors for the 1981-1982 school year, which was a common way for law schools to assess potential hires. During that process, another professor at UT, Louise Weinberg, visited Elizabeth’s class, and wrote an evaluation of her teaching:

“Based on this class, I would say that if Professor Warren were hired, she would be one of our most effective teachers.”

Allan Axelrod, Elizabeth’s professor and mentor from Rutgers, wrote her a recommendation:

“The potential was obvious when she was still a student at Rutgers (where I taught her). She was a dazzlingly able student with a remorselessly logical mind, a strong sense of fact to go with a strong talent for theory, and a real gusto for working with the most arid parts of Commercial Law, and Bankruptcy, and legal accounting (the subjects I taught) to see what they might mean in practical and policy terms.”

The school made her an offer for a tenured, permanent position for the 1983-1984 year. Unfortunately for the family, only Elizabeth received an offer, so Bruce took a teaching position at Washington University in St. Louis.

Guy Wellborn confirmed that Elizabeth was hired because of her excellent academic record:

“My memory is that there was no question. Elizabeth was the top of the group, of any of the groups that we were considering she was the pick of the litter. My memory is clear that Liz was the best. She’s probably one of the 100 best law professors of the last half-century, across the board, and in terms of her overall performance as a teacher and scholar at the top institutions. Any issue about her heritage in the context of her profession as a law professor, it never was mentioned. It never came up.”

Any issue about her heritage in the context of her profession as a law professor, it never was mentioned. It never came up.
Guy Wellborn, Appointments Chair, University of Texas

Douglas Laycock, who was chairing the Appointments Committee when Elizabeth’s permanent offer came up, also confirmed that her family background was not even mentioned during the hiring process:

“I’m quite sure nobody had any idea about it in 82-83. I wrote the official committee memo to the faculty recommending the appointment. It’s a detailed document that summarizes all the individual memos that are in the file. It ran I don’t know 6 or 8 pages, something like that. There’s no mention of ethnicity and I’m quite sure no one knew.”

The offer to join the faculty of the University of Texas, which was considered one of the top dozen law schools in the country in that era, was a major opportunity for Elizabeth. It offered her the chance to begin working with professors Jay Westbrook and Teresa Sullivan on a groundbreaking research study of why American families were filing for bankruptcy. In 1986, she and Westbrook published the first edition of their renowned bankruptcy casebook (legal textbook), which is still used by many law schools to this day.

Personnel documents from the University of Texas (including appointment forms in 1981, 1985, and 1988) show that the university listed her as “white” while she was there. In December 1986, the Association of American Law Schools began including her in its minority law professor listings after she identified as Native American. In April 1986, Elizabeth identified as Native American on a registration card she filled out with the State Bar of Texas after she was admitted to the bar.  That form stated that this data was collected for confidential, “statistical purposes only.”

Elizabeth and Bruce were recruited to teach at the University of Pennsylvania, but Elizabeth declined their first offer.

Elizabeth loved teaching at Texas, but Bruce’s travel back and forth from St. Louis was tough on their family.

During the fall of 1985, Elizabeth and Bruce temporarily solved the problem by joining the University of Michigan — considered at the time a top five law school — as visiting professors. During her one and only semester at Michigan, Elizabeth received the L. Hart Wright Teaching Excellence Award.

At around the same time, other universities around the country similarly took notice of Elizabeth’s scholarship and tried to recruit her. By November 1986, Elizabeth had been recruited by nine different law schools to join their faculty, including Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Stanford University’s Bob Gordon recalled the offer Stanford made to Elizabeth:

“We had a leading bankruptcy expert on the faculty, Tom Jackson, who was one of the leading people in the field, but he went off to Harvard…The school was looking for somebody to replace him and a pretty obvious candidate in the bankruptcy field was Elizabeth Warren. She was still relatively a newcomer to the field but she had established already a reputation as one of the leading scholars in the field. And she was doing just – just pioneering interesting work. And so she was kind of an obvious candidate and our school year, Stanford became interested in her and the then dean, who was the famous constitutional scholar John Hart Ely, offered her a visiting appointment which is how we usually start hiring people. We have them visit for a year to see if we like them and if they like us and I had really hoped that she would come, but I think it didn’t work out for that year.”

Penn, which was ranked similarly to Texas around this time, had first reached out to Elizabeth in 1984, offering her an opportunity to teach as a visiting professor, an academic try-out for law professors. She turned Penn down, but the university expressed renewed interest in her joining the faculty two years later after Penn Professor Stephen Burbank met Elizabeth and Bruce at the University of Michigan.

Burbank, who was a visiting professor at Michigan at the same time, stated:

“I was so impressed by her qualities of mind, by her scholarship, and by reports of her prowess as a teacher that I encouraged my colleagues in Philadelphia to consider her for appointment at Penn Law. Her appointment was based on the excellence of her scholarship and teaching. I do not know whether members of the faculty were even aware of her ancestry, but I am confident that it played no role whatsoever in her appointment.”

I do not know whether members of the faculty were even aware of her ancestry, but I am confident that it played no role whatsoever in her appointment.
Stephen Burbank, University of Pennsylvania Law Professor

After Elizabeth turned down Penn’s offer to visit in 1984 and then again in 1986, Penn offered Elizabeth a full tenured position. They also independently called Bruce to ask if he would consider interviewing for a legal history position. For a legal scholar of colonial American history, the position at Penn Law was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Bruce. And while both offers meant Elizabeth and Bruce could work and live in the same city permanently, it was a tough decision for Elizabeth to leave the University of Texas, which was close to her family and her long time collaborators on bankruptcy.

Again, as the University of Pennsylvania considered the offers for Elizabeth and Bruce, Elizabeth’s mentor Allan Axelrod weighed in. Robert Gorman, a member of the Appointments Committee, recalled:

“Once it was determined at Penn that Elizabeth was someone we should look at as someone with an appointment, Allan chipped in with his exuberantly enthusiastic comments about Elizabeth. He obviously had a strong and very positive relationship to her while she was going to law school and even after. And he spoke so highly of her that it contributed to my ‘never any doubt’ assessment of Elizabeth’s qualities.”

Personnel paperwork at Penn during Elizabeth’s hiring process listed her as white. Administrative forms detailed the school’s extensive effort to find a person of color equal to or better than Elizabeth for that position, and it concluded that Elizabeth was the best for the position despite being considered white. Elizabeth and Bruce joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1987. She won Penn’s Harvey Levin Award for excellence in teaching both in 1989 and 1992. She also won the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1994.

In 1989, Elizabeth and her research partners also published their landmark bankruptcy study as a book: As We Forgive Our Debtors. This research brought national attention to the fact that every year, hundreds of thousands of families file for bankruptcy in the aftermath of serious medical problems. It received the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award. At Penn, she was also appointed as the William A. Schnader Professor of Commercial Law, a position to be occupied by “a scholar of great ability and significant attainment in the field of commercial law.” It was not until late that year — nearly three years after she was offered a tenured position — that Elizabeth’s personnel paperwork first listed her as Native American.

Harvard recruited Elizabeth and Bruce to spend a year there, and offered Elizabeth a job – but she turned them down.

In 1989, Harvard first considered offering Elizabeth a position as a visiting professor as part of a process to fill a commercial law vacancy on the faculty. Three years later, Harvard invited both Elizabeth and Bruce to come teach for a year. Elizabeth wasn’t looking for a change, but her son Alex thought a year away sounded fun. So, Elizabeth, Bruce, and Alex set off for an adventure. And for the first time in her live, Elizabeth stepped foot on Harvard’s campus.

In February of 1993, the Harvard Law School faculty voted to offer Elizabeth a tenured job. According to 31 law professors at Harvard who voted on that decision – Democrats and Republicans, people who knew Elizabeth well and people who didn’t – her family story played no role in her hiring and nearly everyone didn’t even know about it. Internal Harvard memos around her recruitment and hiring make no mention of her family background and neither do contemporaneous news reports. It’s clear that Elizabeth was recruited and offered a job because of her expertise in commercial law and stellar teaching ability. Charles Fried, the former Solicitor General of the United States during the Reagan Administration, stated:

“I recommended Elizabeth Warren to the faculty of Harvard Law School because she is a tremendous teacher. Elizabeth is enthusiastically received by her students. Her classes are electrifying events. She is an important scholar. And Elizabeth is a passionate scholar in an important corner of the law, that is to say, bankruptcy law as it deals with ordinary people who have gotten into financial trouble.

I knew nothing about this at the time I studied her credentials, at the time I presented the case to the faculty, or in the course of the faculty discussion. It never came up. And I did not know it.”

I knew nothing about this at the time I studied her credentials, at the time I presented the case to the faculty, or in the course of the faculty discussion. It never came up. And I did not know it.
Charles Fried, Former Solicitor General of US (President Reagan), Harvard Law School

And Robert C. Clark, the former Dean of Harvard Law School, stated:

“When the Harvard Law School faculty voted in the early 1990’s to make Elizabeth Warren an offer of a tenured professorship at our School, the decision was based on three factors: our goal of adding a top-notch academic expert in debtor-creditor law to the regular faculty; her excellent scholarship in that field; and her fabulous success as a teacher. Her Native American heritage was not a factor in the discussion or the decision.”

Elizabeth declined Harvard’s offer in 1993. They didn’t have a position open for Bruce, and she had no interest in living in two different cities again. Harvard said they would keep the offer open.

Harvard continued to recruit Elizabeth and she continued to decline, but about two years later, Bruce encouraged Elizabeth to take the offer. Family bankruptcies in America were growing at an alarming rate, and Elizabeth wanted to fight back. He told her that if she wanted people to listen to her ideas, she might as well shout from the highest mountain she could find. In 1995, Elizabeth finally accepted Harvard’s offer and became the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law. In the winter of 1995, after joining the faculty and nearly three years after being first offered a position, records indicate that an official called Elizabeth to confirm her Native American identification and changed her personnel paperwork to reflect that.

The graduating classes at Harvard twice recognized her with the Sacks-Freund Award for excellence in teaching. Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe stated:

“Elizabeth Warren’s teaching is a joy to behold. It’s really spectacular. I think Elizabeth, if she were not in the public realm and were teaching again, would be, if not the most popular teacher at Harvard Law School, certainly close.”

During the 1990s, Elizabeth served as the Chief Advisor to the National Bankruptcy Review Commission, and after the 2008 financial crisis, she was asked to serve as Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) Wall Street bailout. The Boston Globe named Elizabeth as Bostonian of the Year and TIME Magazine called her a “New Sheriff of Wall Street” for her oversight efforts.

In 1997, the Beard Group named Warren a top bankruptcy lawyer and in 1999 named her an outstanding bankruptcy academic. In 1998, Warren won the Federal Judicial Center’s Brown Award. That same year, she was named one of the 50 most influential women lawyers. In 2000, Warren and her co-authors won the American College of Consumer Financial Services Lawyers writing competition. In 2002, Warren received the Commercial Law League’s Lawrence P. King Excellence in Bankruptcy Award. In 2007, the National Law Journal named Warren one of the 50 most influential women lawyers. She was honored by the Massachusetts Women’s Bar Association with the Lelia J. Robinson Award.

In addition to writing more than 100 scholarly articles and casebooks during her academic career, Elizabeth wrote two critically-acclaimed, best-selling books while at Harvard: The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Parents are Going Broke, and All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan.

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