News & Politics

Anti Thesis

Elana Kagan’s college papers don’t say much about her—and neither do anyone else’s.

As a senior at Princeton University in 1981, history major Elena Kagan wrote her thesis about socialism in New York City in the early 20th century. Surely that means that in 2010, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan must harbor socialist sympathies, right? In the buildup to her June confirmation hearings, that’s what some of her opponents would have you believe. In reality, Kagan’s senior paper, “To the Final Conflict: Socialism in New York City, 1900-1933,” is largely an academic slog with no flavor of radicalism.

Regardless of its content, should someone really be judged by a college paper decades after it was written? As President Obama’s high-court pick and the current US solicitor general, Kagan is, of course, in a very rare situation, living under a very hot spotlight. But of all the documents released by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, that thesis may actually be the least important in determining who Elena Kagan is and how she’ll make decisions if confirmed.

Senators aren’t the only people who shouldn’t rely on college papers in the hiring process, local law-firm leaders say.

“I think it’s very risky to try to understand something meaningful about a person’s views later in life by reading their college thesis,” says Eric Bernthal, managing partner of Latham & Watkins’ DC office, in an e-mail. “When I was in college, I was ardently opposed to capital punishment, virulently anti-war (it was the Vietnam era), a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and a believer that all guns should be confiscated and melted down. . . . Those issues seemed so black and white, so clearly one-sided in a moral sense, when I was young. Not so today.”

Supreme Court advocate and Akin Gump partner Tom Goldstein points out that a thesis doesn’t say much about someone’s personal views “because it’s frequently not a statement of principles, and the reality is that people change.” He adds that he doesn’t even remember any of the college papers he wrote as “an aspiring B student.”

Perhaps students with political ambitions will begin thinking more carefully about what they choose to put on paper. That would be an unfortunate consequence, according to George Washington University Law professor and media commentator Jonathan Turley. “I often joke with my first-year students that I impose a ‘Senate-confirmation rule’ that nothing you say in the class can be repeated at your confirmation hearing,” he says. “Part of growing as an intellectual is like dressing up as a kid. You try on different things, prance around a bit, and eventually find the right outfit for you.”

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner Theodore Olson, one of Kagan’s predecessors as solicitor general, sums it up nicely: “I’d hate to be judged on the basis of all the dumb things I wrote in college.”

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Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 as a staff writer, and became a senior editor in 2014. She oversees the magazine’s real estate and home design coverage, and writes long-form feature stories. She was a 2020 Livingston Award finalist for her two-part investigation into a wrongful conviction stemming from a murder in rural Virginia.