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Kathryn Kolbert

Kathryn Kolbert

Kathryn Kolbert, a public-interest attorney and journalist, is the Director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College, an interdisciplinary center devoted to the theory and practice of women's leadership.

Wicked smart, despite naysayers

Q: Elena Kagan's nomination has raised the prospect of an "all-Ivy" Supreme Court. Is it a good idea for any institution, or any sector of society, to rely so heavily on a handful of elite universities to educate and train its leaders?

No one disputes that Elena Kagan is wicked smart, lives and breathes the law, and has an uncanny ability to forge consensus among contentious, exacting lawyers. Aren't those precisely the qualities we want on the currently fractious Court?

So I don't hold it against her that she is a product of an Ivy League law school. As the Supreme Court itself has noted, law schools are a "training ground for a large number of our nation's leaders. Individuals with law degrees occupy roughly half the state governorships, more than half the seats in the United States Senate, and more than a third of the seats in the United States House of Representatives. The pattern is even more striking when it comes to highly selective law schools. A handful of these schools accounts for 25 of the 100 United States Senators, 74 United States Courts of Appeals judges, and nearly 200 of the more than 600 United States District Court judges." Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 332 (2003).

Ivy League institutions may bring together the best and the brightest but certainly are not monolithic - their students hold a vast array of viewpoints, thought processes, philosophies, and backgrounds. Yale Law counts among its alumni the Clintons, and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. No one would accuse those Yalies of being cut from the same cloth.

The problem is not spreading power further down the rankings in U.S. News and World Report; what we should worry about is keeping the doors of Ivy League and other elite schools wide open to deserving students of exceptional abilities and potential, without regard to race, gender, socioeconomic background or ability to pay.

And imagine the hoopla if the president had nominated a woman from a less prestigious school? You can bet the naysayers would have been squealing she wasn't good enough for the job.

By Kathryn Kolbert

 |  May 19, 2010; 2:11 PM ET
Category:  Leadership development Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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