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.
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 1977. 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.”