Elizabeth Warren has been a Senate candidate for only a week, but already her campaign has historic significance, at least at Harvard University: She is the school’s first professor to run for federal office in many years and one of very few ever with a shot at winning.
Warren’s Harvard link could be an advantage, providing an informal network of influential colleagues, students, and alumni in her bid for Senator Scott Brown’s seat.
But her connection to the university could also hurt her. A Harvard line on a résumé appeals to employers but plays less well with some voters.
“We’re going to hear the ‘Harvard elite’ thing over and over. That’s Scott Brown’s best play,’’ said Dan Cluchey, a third-year student organizing a “Students for Warren’’ club. “Of course, I think anyone who describes her that way is either being misleading or just hasn’t met her yet.’’
Opponents started to use Warren’s Harvard connection against her even before she declared she would run. The “CrazyKhazei’’ Twitter account, yanked in late August after a Scott Brown adviser was revealed as its author, painted her as a “typical Harvard elitist.’’ In early September, the school’s student newspaper, the Crimson, predicted Warren would have a “Harvard Problem.’’
Last month, the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s communications director described Warren as needing to learn more about the state as “someone who has spent many years ensconced in the hallways of Harvard.’’
Many politicians have Harvard credentials: 31 members of Congress hold degrees from the school, as do President Obama and presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Three of Warren’s opponents have Harvard connections: Alan Khazei is an alumnus, Robert Massie earned his doctorate there and has lectured at the Divinity School, and Setti Warren’s wife works at the child development center. Harvard professors are also called to serve as government appointees and advisers so often that there is practically a revolving door between Cambridge and Washington.
What makes Warren’s campaign unusual is that she is teaching and campaigning at the same time.
Professors rarely run for major offices, and when they do, they typically drop their academic positions.
A rare exception is Robert Reich, who taught one course per semester at Brandeis University while running for Massachusetts governor in 2002.
An earlier academic-turned-candidate, John Silber, took a leave of absence from the presidency of Boston University during his own run for Massachusetts governor in 1990.
Obama ran in local elections five times during his 12 years teaching law at the University of Chicago. But unlike Warren, he canceled his classes when he turned his gaze to the US Senate.
Perhaps the closest parallel to Warren’s candidacy is that of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who taught at Harvard from 1966 to 1977 and won his Senate seat in 1976. He agonized over leaving the university for the Senate - but he had already spent eight months in the previous year as ambassador to India.
By seeking office while still on the faculty, Warren may face legal and ethical issues related to her position.
“Universities have nonprofit status, so they have to be careful,’’ said Michael Toner, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who now is an attorney with Wiley Rein LLP. “They can’t endorse candidates. They certainly can’t underwrite them. And the candidate can’t state or imply something like ‘Harvard’s behind me.’ ’’
Candidates also cannot skimp on work duties while earning full-time wages, which can be viewed as in-kind contributions.
But Warren should have adequate time to fulfill her job duties; she is teaching only one class, contract law, twice a week this semester. Although a Harvard Law School spokesman, Robb London, said no decisions had been made about future teaching arrangements, Warren is not scheduled for classes in the winter or spring.
Harvard should be able to navigate any complexities raised by Warren’s candidacy, said Gene Takagi, a California lawyer who specializes in advising nonprofits. “I think Harvard is sophisticated enough to keep itself out of trouble,’’ he said.
The university has a four-page policy outlining the legal requirements for faculty and staff who seek political office. But it has rarely had to put that policy into action.
A brief search of its archives turned up only one professor in recent years other than Warren and Moynihan who waged a congressional campaign while teaching at the school.
H. Stuart Hughes was a history student at Harvard in the late 1930s, a junior professor from 1947 to 1952, a senior professor from 1957 through 1973 - and a failed independent opponent of Edward M. Kennedy in the 1962 Senate race.
Hughes was fair game for accusations of belonging to the liberal elite. His campaign for nuclear disarmament was so radical it left him ostracized from fellow faculty members. As for “elite,’’ his grandfather paraded him as a chubby-cheeked infant during a presidential run in 1916.
Warren, on the other hand, is the daughter of a janitor and store clerk and describes herself as being brought up “on the ragged edge of the middle class.’’
“There is not much in common between Warren and Hughes,’’ said Harry Lewis, a computer science professor and former dean of Harvard College. “Hughes was an aristocrat. Would any political candidate today dare abbreviate his first name?’’
That difference, combined with Warren’s work in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, may inoculate her from charges of being out of touch. “Nobody understands better what it takes to make the legal and economic system work for ordinary people,’’ said Laurence Tribe, a prominent Harvard professor of constitutional law.
Warren’s salary at Harvard could still be used as a cudgel against her populist positions. According to documents filed with the Senate, as Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law, she made $349,375 in 2009 in addition to more than $182,000 in royalties and consulting fees. But she is not a member of Harvard’s old guard. Before she came to the school in 1995, she taught at the public flagship universities in Texas and Michigan and attended the University of Houston and Rutgers University.
She also does not fit the stereotype of an academic who cares only about publication. She is known for inviting students over for dinner and is the only professor at the law school to win its major teaching award twice.
“I have tended to disagree with professor Warren on a wide range of policy matters in the past, so my inclination is to say that I would probably not vote for her,’’ said Rachel Frankeny, a third-year student. “But when an incoming student asks, ‘Who are the professors that I really must take a class with before I leave here?’ her name almost always comes up. It was a big deal when she left to help start the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. I’m sure her Senate candidacy will be a big deal, too.’’
Mary Carmichael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.