All Leaders are Responsible for The Messages They Send—Including Elena Kaganby Don on Jun. 10, 2010, under Uncategorized
Later this summer, Elena Kagan will be questioned by the Senate Judiciary Committee, after which she’ll most likely be confirmed as our next Supreme Court Justice. Her willingness to support our military is already under close scrutiny; it will certainly be a hot topic in the hearings. While the Senate explores her judicial qualifications, they should also question her judgment and actions as a national and international leader, in a time of war.
Much has been written and said about Kagan’s leading role in opposing the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. Stemming from federal law, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” prevents gays and lesbians from acknowledging their sexuality while in the military, under penalty of discharge.
Kagan was one of the most prominent American jurists to sign a “friend of the court” brief that opposed the Solomon Amendment. The Solomon Amendment allows the federal government to withhold funds from academic institutions that hinder the military’s ability to recruit on campus. (Many schools blocked military recruiting because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”)
Then, while Dean of Harvard Law School, Kagan reinstituted a ban on official Harvard support of military recruiters, after the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Solomon Amendment unconstitutional. Although the Third Circuit stayed its ruling, pending an appeal to the Supreme Court, Kagan acted anyway. For these reasons, many writers and some politicians have questioned Kagan’s support of our military.
Plenty of lawyers and Democratic politicians have risen to Kagan’s defense. They note that Kagan allowed the military to keep recruiting Harvard lawyers, through back channels. Some veterans who attended Harvard Law while Kagan was dean have also spoken up for her. Marine Captain Robert Merrill wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post on May 21st defending Kagan. “If Elena Kagan is “anti-military,” she certainly didn’t show it,” writes Merrill. Kagan hosted dinners for Harvard Law veterans, supported their veterans’ association and sent personal notes thanking them for serving. “She was decidedly against ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ but that never affected her treatment of those who had served” writes Merrill.
The message from Kagan’s supporters is clear: she had a nuanced but sincere position of support for our military. She opposed federal policy in public while supporting our soldiers in private.
That’s fine…for someone who stays in the background. For a leader, it’s not.
One of the main reasons that Elena Kagan is prominent is her former position as Dean of Harvard Law. Harvard is America’s signature university, and Harvard Law its most prestigious law school. The Dean of Harvard Law, therefore, speaks and acts with elevated clout.
Good leaders are conscious of the messages they send. They know their words and actions are weighed and interpreted over and over again. Good leaders think carefully before they do or say things that send messages—especially messages that will resonate not only throughout a country, but across the world.
Something else big happened in November of 2004…the Second Battle of Fallujah. Wikipedia describes Second Fallujah as some of the bloodiest fighting the Marines have been in since the Vietnam War, and one of the bloodiest battles of the entire Iraq conflict.
So, in the same month that American soldiers and Marines are engaged In some of the most vicious fighting they’ve seen in years, in the midst of a war that doesn’t look as if it will end anytime soon…the leader of the most prestigious law school in the United States closes the front door to our military. Did she think no one would notice?
What kind of message do you think that sent? To our troops, and to the rest of the world? At a time when our military needed the best and brightest it could get—especially in the Judge Advocate Generals Corps, because military lawyers provide guidance that’s vital in counterinsurgency fights like Iraq and Afghanistan—Harvard Law School publicly shut its door.
I’ll stipulate that Captain Merrill appears to be right: Elena Kagan doesn’t sound “anti-military” to me. Dean Kagan’s nuanced actions and positions, when examined thoroughly and reflected upon in detail, do show noteworthy, commendable support for our military. It’s also important to acknowledge that Kagan didn’t totally forbid military legal recruiting at Harvard Law. JAG recruiters could still reach students through back-channels.
Leaders, however, can’t take refuge in nuance. They have a responsibility to send clear messages. They’re supposed to recognize that, not everyone can see all the mitigating activities, like thoughtful notes or friendly dinners. Most people only get the big picture message.
Elena Kagan is obviously brilliant. It’s hard to conclude that she didn’t realize the power of the message her actions sent; I doubt that naïve intellects rise to the deanship of Harvard Law.
No, I think it’s fair to conclude that Dean Kagan knew what kind of message she was sending when she closed Harvard Law’s front doors to the JAGs. Therefore, it’s fair to hold Kagan accountable for the impact of that message. Something tells me several Senators on the Judiciary Committee have already come to those very same conclusions.
Many of the dean’s critics probably remember what happened to another military recruiter at another Ivy League law school one year earlier. In the fall of 2003, Navy JAG recruiter Brian Whitaker went to Yale Law School—and was received a less-than-respectful reception. “Virtually all law students signed a petition that they would not meet with Whitaker or other JAG recruiters” writes Scott Johnson, one of the principals at the “Powerline” blog. “The petition was publicly displayed inside the law school as part of a protest display that included black and camouflage wall hangings.”
Black and camouflage wall hangings? In the middle of a war? Nice…very nice. If Dean Kagan and her supporters are a bit upset that she’s not getting the benefit of the doubt right now, this might be one reason why.
Another reason, and in my opinion a more important one, was that, in November of 2004, the dean of Harvard Law School acted as if there wasn’t a war going on. There was, and still is.
Rudyard Kipling criticized British society for disrespecting its soldiers in peace but showering them with praise in war:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play.
I’m sure they heard the music of Iraq and Afghanistan on the Harvard campus. Why they tuned it out is something Elena Kagan should explain to all of us, later this summer.