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Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan (HCES '71 & HCHS '78) receives Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters

Hunter College presented Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan with an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters on Friday, September 21, 2018. The degree was conferred by President Jennifer J. Raab, who opened the ceremony by paying tribute to Justice Kagan’s extraordinary life and career. Afterward, Justice Kagan engaged in a conversation with her longtime friend and colleague John F. Manning, Dean of Harvard Law School. The event was capped by a question-and-answer segment, allowing current Hunter elementary, high school, and college students to present the Justice with questions about her observations and experiences serving on the highest bench in the land.

A video of the event can be seen here.

For Justice Kagan, the doctorate represented more than an ordinary recognition. As a lifelong member of the Hunter College family, with deep ties to the school that extend to her mother and brother, she said that in her family, this honor is “better than winning the Nobel Prize. ”Justice Kagan is a graduate of both Hunter College Elementary School and Hunter College High School; she last stood at the Assembly Hall podium as a speaker at her high school graduation in 1978. Her brother Irving, also a product of the Hunter College Campus Schools, now teaches Constitutional Law at Hunter College High School. Justice Kagan’s mother, Gloria, was a beloved member of the Hunter College Elementary School faculty who earned her education degree at Hunter College.

Justice Kagan recalled her teenage years with fondness and humor: “I had the most remarkable high school experience,” she said. At the time, she explained, Hunter College had shifted to open enrollment for the first time, an important initiative to expand the school’s reach but a challenge to space constraints. Hunter College High School was displaced, and Kagan and her peers attended school in temporary classroom space based in an office building. Petitions and letters poured in to save the school, but in the meantime Kagan and her peers enjoyed the non-traditional school environment, taking field trips to Central Park, earning gym credits for bowling in a local alley, eating lunch in pizzerias and coffee shops since there was no cafeteria. “We were thirteen or fourteen and NYC was ours,” Kagan remembered. She and her friends were “citizens of the city.”

Kagan’s strong sense of citizenship was a recurring theme of her remarks and remembrances, as were the lessons she took from her mother. During her 20 years teaching at Hunter College Elementary School, Gloria Gittelman Kagan earned a reputation for rigor – even with sixth graders. She taught her students, and her children, that “you should always work the hardest that you can, and try to use the gifts that you’ve been given.”

After graduating from high school at Hunter, Ms. Kagan went on to Princeton University. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to pursue – “organic chemistry had stumped me, so medical school was out” – and decided to enroll in law school to keep her options open. She found that she loved it: “Law mattered. It had the potential to make a difference in the world.”

In 2001, Kagan became the first female Dean of Harvard Law School. In 2009, she again made history when she became the first female Solicitor General of the United States. In May of 2010, President Barack Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court.

The trajectory that brought Ms. Kagan to the bench was incremental, and in many ways, unplanned. She attributes her unconventional path to resilience and her boundless curiosity: “I always loved when the learning curve was the highest.” Until her appointment as Dean at Harvard, Kagan pointed out, “I never had a job that lasted more than three years. I was Dean for six years . . . and now I have life tenure.”

Asked by Dean Manning to share the most surprising aspect of her life on the Supreme Court, Kagan shared anecdotes of the gentle hazing she experienced as a junior Justice, having to open the door to the Chambers any time an outsider came in – even when that involved hobbling on an injured leg – and having to listen to complaints about lunchroom minutiae as the mandated representative to the cafeteria committee. But her passion for her job was evident, as was her profound respect for the institution she serves and for the eight Justices with whom she shares the bench.

Justice Kagan encouraged the young people assembled to hear her to stay open to unexpected possibilities as they chart their future paths. She also stressed the importance of keeping an open mind and remaining empathetic. “No one has a monopoly on truth or wisdom,” she said. “When you listen to other people, you understand where they’re coming from, what the world looks like from their perspective.”

She credited her success and perspective to her early days at Hunter. “More than any other educational institution, Hunter College Elementary School and High School made me the person that I am. I will be endlessly grateful to my teachers, administrators, and fellow students for my time at those institutions.”

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