Not many people get to share a stage with former President Bill Clinton, but former Law School professor Elizabeth Warren will be one of them.
Warren, who is currently in a race for a highly contested Senate seat in Massachusetts, will speak tonight at the Democratic National Convention.
Over the years, Warren has made a name for herself by serving as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. She is also widely known for her support of consumers, having helped to establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Throughout her Senate race against incumbent Sen. Scott Brown (R.-Mass.) — who took Ted Kennedy’s seat after the late Massachusetts senator died in 2009 — Warren’s days at Penn have not come without their controversy.
According to media reports that began to surface in April, Warren had listed herself as Native American in the Association of American Law Schools’ directory from 1986 to 1995, during which time she worked at Penn and later Harvard University.
While those reports have since blown over and the Senate race has shifted its focus to other issues, Warren’s appearance at the DNC tonight is sure to put her front and center in the political spotlight.
“Very few people speak at national conventions and very few get prime time spots,” Annenberg School for Communication professor Alvin Felzenberg said. “And that I think is significant. This certainly will help her.”
While Warren grew up in a middle-class family, she had to deal with hardships from a young age. When she was still a child, her father suffered a heart attack, causing his employer to change his job and cut his pay. Her family struggled to pay the medical bills that mounted up.
After getting married at 19, Warren attended college at the University of Houston and later began working at an elementary school in New Jersey. In 1973, after having worked for a few years, she decided to go to law school at Rutgers University.
After graduating, Warren then taught at Rutgers for a year before accepting a job as an assistant professor at the University of Houston Law Center.
John Mixon, a University of Houston law professor who would often have lunch with Warren, said Warren was an easy hire, even with just one year of prior experience.
“She was just a sterling person. She had also taught for a year at Rutgers and was well received there,” he said. “We were just glad to find her.”
Becoming an assistant professor at a law school then was not an easy feat, Mixon added.
“In fact, women weren’t really sought out for a law teaching job,” he said.
However, Warren wasn’t content to stay in place at the University of Houston, and in 1983 went to work at the University of Texas at Austin. There, she began the work which would start to carve out her reputation as a consumer protection advocate and bankruptcy law expert.
Coming to Penn
After spending four years at the University of Texas, Warren traded that job for a position at Penn.
According to Colin Diver, a former Penn Law dean and now a retired president of Reed College, Warren quickly proved to be a good hire for the University. She worked at Penn during a time when the Law School was trying to restore its prominence in the legal field, he said.
“She was very much in the league of trying to build up the strength of the faculty and generally the strength of the law school,” Diver said. “It was always inspiring and surprising to work with her.”
Alix James, a former student of Warren’s at Penn, said Warren was a “fantastic professor” who helped her cultivate an interest in bankruptcy law.
“I’m not surprised she wound up in politics,” James said. “I think she genuinely wants to make a difference.”
In 1994, Warren won a Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, one of the University’s highest honors for academic leadership.
Her identification as a Native American faculty member during her time at Penn has drawn attention from the Brown campaign.
Brown alleged that she had listed herself as a minority merely to boost her chances of getting hired at a top university, where diversity hiring was starting to become important.
Diver, however, said that her listing as Native American had no impact on the hiring decision.
“I know the details of her record. I know what she was hired for,” he said. “My guess is that the vast majority of people who hired her had no idea of her Native American heritage.”
A possible reason for Warren’s decision to list herself as a minority comes from her beliefs about her heritage.
“I’m convinced she genuinely believed she had Native American blood. When she talked about it, which was rarely, she talked about it in a matter of fact way,” Diver said. “She told stories about the family history that was conveyed to her by her parents and her grandparents.”
Felzenberg believes the Native American story caught fire in April and May because it gave the media an opportunity to cover issues related to diversity in everyday life.
“Stories like this just get our attention,” he said. “I think she became a vehicle for the issue to be discussed, the broader issue. I have no reason to believe she did anything wrong.”
In 1992, Warren received an offer to teach at Harvard as a visiting faculty member for a year, which she accepted. She joined the school’s full-time faculty in 1995.
Although Warren has never run for national office, Diver believes that her experiences in academia have made her into the person she is today.
“She was not uninterested in the plight of the working class that she was writing about. It affected her deeply,” he said. “It was obvious that she wanted to do something more.”
And tonight, Warren will get her 15 minutes to do her part to make that happen.
“If elected, I think she would be one of the brightest people in Congress, in the Senate,” Mixon said. “I’m a big fan of her. I hope she wins.”