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Credit: Lulu Wang

United States Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has a rags-to-riches career path that is well-documented: Born in Oklahoma as the fourth child of middle-class parents, Warren underwent a meteoric rise that took her through the halls of Harvard Law School and to the chamber of the United States Senate.

Along the way, Warren also worked as an esteemed professor at Penn Law School in the late 1980s and 1990s. This past week, that time in Warren's career resurfaced in the public eye when The Boston Globe published an investigatory piece on her past at Penn and her controversial claims of Native American heritage. 

For years, conservative critics of Warren, including President Donald Trump, have used the nickname "Pocahontas" for the Massachusetts senator. Her detractors argue Warren claimed Native American heritage in a bid to advance her law career and get hired at universities. 

According to the Globe’s report, however, Warren listed herself as a white woman when applying for her job at Penn, suggesting that her Native American ties were not a factor in her hiring.

An advertisement in the Daily Pennsylvanian from 27 April 1994 depicting Elizabeth Warren moderating a panel.

One figure at the heart of this issue is Penn Law professor Stephen Burbank, who was a member of the appointments committee and part of a subcommittee that investigated all minority prospects for jobs at Penn Law when Warren was being considered for a professorial position.

For Burbank, the matter is simple: Warren was not seen as a minority candidate. 

“We viewed her as a woman candidate, and a white woman candidate,” Burbank said. “It’s clear we did, as there would’ve been no need to undergo the search for a more qualified minority candidate if she was a minority.”

This was articulated in a 10-page report filed in April 1987 by the Penn Law affirmative action officer and dean. In the report, which Burbank allowed the Globe to view, Warren is referred to as white and it explains that Penn Law did not find any minority candidates of "equal or better stature."

Burbank reiterated that Warren was hired as a white woman on the basis of her excellent record and scholarship, not because she was Native American.

According to Colin Diver, the dean of Penn Law School from 1989 to 1999, Warren was a superb and welcoming professor whose race had nothing to do with her hiring.

It wasn't until he worked with Warren for around two years that Diver recalled the senator referencing her Oklahoma roots and discussing her family's Cherokee Native American heritage. 

Burbank also remarked on Warren's teaching ability, describing her as a skilled professor whose captivating teaching style had the ability to make subjects such as commercial law engaging to her students.

Penn Democrats President and Wharton junior Dylan Milligan said comments targeting Warren’s heritage are simply an attempt by Republicans to call her names and to "stoke racial animus."

“[Her heritage] is something that she knew [about] and was part of her family history,” Milligan said. “I think all families have their own familial narrative, and that was hers — I don’t fault her for that.”

Both Burbank and Diver said when they hear politicians like Trump refer to Warren as "Pocahontas," they feel offended and angered because they know race was not a factor in her attaining a job at Penn Law.

“It’s just another sad example of the president slinging childish insults at people he feels threatened by,” Burbank said.

Diver agreed with Burbank's sentiments.

“President Trump is a coward, and when cowards are afraid of someone, they insult them,” Diver said. “And that is why Trump feels the need to insult Elizabeth.”