As professor Diana Sclar sat with a young Elizabeth Warren over lunch one day at Rutgers Law School in Newark, Warren said something surprising.
She called herself a “political conservative.”
That was a rare sentiment in the early 1970s at Rutgers, where Warren, a 24-year-old mother raised in Oklahoma, had stepped into a cauldron of liberal activity.
In the North Jersey city still reeling from unrest, students called it “the People’s Electric Law School” and they treated authority with irreverence, or disdain. Some referred to the 1967 Newark riots as “the uprising,” and when Sclar passed around a seating chart in her class on property law, it came back with a note: “property is theft.”
Sclar didn’t ask what beliefs prompted Warren, her student, to describe herself as a conservative, and Warren has said she didn’t have a serious political identity then. But Sclar remembered being stunned that the future senator approved of IBM’s conformist culture, where Warren’s husband had to wear a white shirt every day.
“She said, ‘Oh no, I think that’s perfectly appropriate,’ ” Sclar recalled.
It would be decades before Warren became a Democrat, let alone the liberal firebrand now seeking the presidency by promising “big, structural change.”
But many of her former classmates say Warren’s time at the liberal hotbed in North Jersey must have influenced the politics she now embraces.
“There was, I wouldn’t say `revolution’ in the air, but a lot of people were interested in pursuing careers to change the country, to try to change the world, to address systemic issues that we still have today,” said Louis Raveson, a Warren classmate who now teaches at Rutgers Law and has supported her Senate campaigns.
“It was an exciting time to be studying law in terms of people who really wanted to make change,” said Mimi Marchev, who also entered Rutgers with Warren in 1973. “That was sort of the tenor of the place. It wasn’t a feeder into corporate law.”
The restive atmosphere provided an unlikely launching pad for a legal career that would lead Warren, now 70, to the top of the academic world, the U.S. Senate, and, today, the front of the Democratic presidential primary campaign.
“Rutgers Law opened a thousand doors for me," Warren said in a statement to The Inquirer. “I learned important thinking skills. I got a law degree. But most of all, Rutgers put me to the test to figure out who I was and what I could do.”
One step along the way brought her to teach at the University of Pennsylvania, where students and colleagues in University City saw the explanatory skills and intellectual combativeness that have become her signatures on the national stage, and which she’ll deploy again at the Democratic debate next week.
Interviews with more than a dozen of Warren’s classmates, teachers, colleagues, and students, along with a review of yearbooks, Penn archives, and Warren’s legal writing, revealed how the two institutions influenced her and offered early glimpses of defining traits she now uses to drive a campaign around big and politically risky policy plans.
“She had the talent to sort of be able to present the issue in a sophisticated way but in a completely comprehensible way,” said Gary Francione, a Penn Law colleague who now teaches at Rutgers. “The Liz Warren we’re seeing is the Liz Warren of the classroom, which made her beloved.”
At first, though, Warren had more everyday concerns.
She was struggling to find her career path in a world where her options were limited. Warren and her first husband, Jim, had moved to Rockaway, N.J., when IBM transferred him to the area. Her teaching career had abruptly ended when she got pregnant.
“I wanted to be a good wife and mother, but I wanted to do something more,” Warren wrote in her 2014 memoir, A Fighting Chance. “I knew next to nothing about being a lawyer, but on television lawyers were always fighting to defend good people who needed help.”
Rutgers offered inexpensive in-state tuition and a manageable commute. “I have carefully analyzed my career and personal aspirations and have concluded that the study of law and a law practice would be consistent with my goals while best satisfying my intellectual hunger,” Warren hand-wrote on her application.
Unlike many law schools then, Rutgers actively recruited a diverse student body flush with women and people of color. Tuition cost around $900 per year. Students volunteered for legal clinics representing poor people facing eviction or discrimination. They researched cases on police conduct, including the killing of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg had recently finished a teaching stint there, and while one page in the 1969 yearbook touted her trailblazing work for women in law, another joked that she “doubled as a go-go dancer on the East Side.”
“There were so many women and a significant number of minority students there,” said Barbara Tuck Lovell, part of the same class as Warren. “It was just open. That was the thing I liked about the school, the diversity.”
Warren had attended segregated public schools while growing up in an Oklahoma family that struggled economically, and went to college at George Washington University and the University of Houston.
In Newark, she went to a city six years removed from riots that had caused millions of dollars in damage, burned entire blocks, and left 26 dead in an explosion of anger over police abuse, poverty, and inequality.
Patricia Nachtigal was one of many first-year students in 1973 who, like Warren, was returning to school after starting other careers. As the clock hit exactly 9 a.m. on the first day of class, the professor in a crisp three-piece suit pulled out his pocket watch, looked at it, and shut the door.
Moments later, a lean young woman with short hair slid into the room and sat next to Nachtigal, looking nervous. Nachtigal wrote her a note: “Lowenthal — contracts.”
That’s how she met Warren.
“As she sat down, the professor again pulled out his watch and looked at Liz very seriously and put his watch back down,” Nachtigal recalled. “After that, Liz was never late again for any class.”
Classmates remember “Liz” as smart, energetic, and laser-focused, a necessity for balancing classes with being a mother and homemaker. Driving to Newark in a blue Volkswagen Beetle, she would bring her lunch, and occasionally her young daughter, Amelia. If friends couldn’t watch Amelia, Warren would bring her to class.
“You could hear the little snack packs wrinkling as Amy sat there coloring,” Nachtigal recalled, using Amelia’s childhood nickname. “Jim went to work and Jim came home, but Liz was supposed to do everything that a wife and mother would do in addition to being in law school. … When she was studying, she was studying, and when she wasn’t, she was vacuuming or baking.”
Nachtigal would become one of Warren’s few close friends at the school, and still sends her occasional emails.
None of the other Rutgers classmates interviewed for this story remembered interacting much with Warren socially; the young mother seemed too pressed for time. Politics, they said, barely, if ever, came up. (Her Rutgers Law Review article in 1978, though, had a pro-business bent, as she argued for rules that would help California public utilities save on their taxes.)
Warren often tells the story about what happened after she made it into that first class. The professor, John Lowenthal, suddenly challenged the students to explain assumpsit. Warren sat in terror as one student after another flailed. Like them, she was dumbfounded. She considered quitting right then.
But in a 2011 commencement speech at Rutgers Law, she said she instead learned two lessons, according to the prepared text: Look up unfamiliar words and “pull up your socks and do what needs to be done.”
Warren recalled struggling at times, but her classmates remembered her as upbeat and a step ahead in class.
“Even if she didn’t have the precise answer, she could get to the precise answer through a reasoning process," said Sclar, who taught Warren’s property class.
“She was the smartest person in our law school class, as far as I was concerned,” said Peg Black, a classmate. “She was fearless.”
Warren found a mentor in Allan Axelrod, a polymath who wore thick black frames and was described as a genius by people who knew him. He taught classes dealing with commercial law, bankruptcy, and creditors — fields in which Warren would make her name, and which would become the foundation of a worldview centered on fighting powerful business interests.
“He was the faculty member most influential in her formation as a teacher and she dedicated one of her books to him,” said Peter Simmons, a former Rutgers dean who later hired Warren.
In her final year of law school, Warren was pregnant again, and her options again limited. She had put a shingle on a lamppost outside her home and began practicing real estate law when Rutgers called, seeking a teacher in legal writing.
It was a first step on a steep climb that would lead her to Philadelphia about a decade later, this time as an ascending star.
Anne Marie Lofaso arrived at Penn in 1988 planning to become a criminal lawyer. Then she took Warren’s class.
“Best teacher I ever had in my whole life, it’s not even close,” said Lofaso, who instead became a bankruptcy attorney and now teaches the topic at West Virginia University Law School, using some of the same techniques she saw in Warren’s classes.
“I’m remembering her lessons,” she said. “I can see them vividly.”
She recounted Warren miming handshakes when discussing the intricacies of contracts, drawing diagrams to explain who bears legal risks, and infusing the legal talk with jokes.
Warren was only the second female professor she ever had. And when male classmates openly asserted that women at Penn were inferior, Lofaso took heart in Warren’s presence, particularly since the professor had climbed the stratified legal world without the cachet of an Ivy League law degree.
“She was a bright light in that. She reminded us that she had it harder than we did,” Lofaso said.
Warren landed at Penn in 1987 after stints at the University of Houston and University of Texas. At Houston, she had taught commercial law and was reluctant to take on a second class on bankruptcy. But when she wrote Axelrod, her Rutgers mentor responded that “if teaching was too hard for me, I should look for something easier," Warren said in her statement. "So I did it. Allan Axelrod taught me law, but he taught me more about the responsibilities of being a scholar and a teacher. I owe him more than I could ever repay.”
It was a vital push. Warren’s work as part of a three-person team doing groundbreaking research on people going through bankruptcy opened her eyes to what she saw as inequities in the system, and sparked her political awakening. It also caught Penn’s attention.
“We recognized that wherever the hell she went to law school was irrelevant, because she was hot, she was going to be a major player,” said Francione, the Penn colleague. “I think a lot of Ivy League schools would not have taken a chance on her."
Penn was also looking for a legal historian, and recruited Warren’s second husband, Bruce Mann, a rising scholar in that field. (Her first marriage had ended, Warren has written, when her newfound career ambitions clashed with Jim’s expectations of a wife.)
Warren joined a nearly all-male, all-white faculty in a city scarred by the crack epidemic. Colin Diver, dean for much of Warren’s tenure, remembers friends pitching Philly by noting it wasn’t all that far from New York.
"Philadelphia really felt like a million miles away” from Texas, Warren said in her statement.
Warren and Mann settled into a stone home in Bala Cynwyd and Diver likened them to the welcoming committee. He remembered Warren hosting parties, offering tips about where to eat, how to get to the Barnes museum, and where to sit at Veterans Stadium. She was a college football fan and, as an Oklahoman who taught at Texas, “was always making fun of Texas A&M,” Diver recalled.
Even in her early 40s at Penn, Warren’s politics still weren’t fully formed.
She registered as a Republican and in 1992 split her ticket, she told the liberal news site The Intercept. She voted for Bill Clinton for president, but also for Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, even as many women took aim at the Pennsylvanian over his handling of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation.
As at Rutgers, Penn colleagues said politics rarely came up with Warren, and the faint impressions they had were of a conservative or moderate. She has said she wasn’t deeply engaged in politics until later in life, and didn’t switch parties until after leaving Penn in 1995.
Other enduring aspects of her public persona, however, were already clear, including her vigor and the spiky debate attitude she carried from years as a high school debate champion.
“A good fight is far more interesting than a host of polite compliments and careful hedgings,” Warren wrote during one clash of ideas in the 1987 University of Chicago Law Review. She now hammers rivals for being afraid to battle for big ideas, while they charge she is disdainful of those with different views.
The trait students and peers most frequently mentioned was her ability to explain things, often by citing vivid examples to ground abstract ideas.
Ancela Nastasi changed paths and went into bankruptcy law because of Warren’s "ability to breathe life into the most boring and mundane material and make it fascinating.”
She remembers a professor constantly on the move. Warren’s office had piles of paper and a jar of Red Hots. “She had her hair in a bob at that point, she was always very slight and she was always walking with very clear direction and purpose,” Nastasi said.
Robert Scheinbaum remembered being stumped on the first day of class: Warren asked the students to define assumpsit. (It’s an ancient term for an informal contract, and a legal action to enforce it.)
In eight years at Penn Law, Warren twice won a teaching award voted on by students and became the first woman to have an endowed professorship, and published As We Forgive Our Debtors, which won a national award for best book on the law in 1989.
“It was generally thought that she was the best teacher on what is, and what had been, a very strong teaching faculty,” said Stephen Burbank, a Penn Law colleague.
Penn was trying to expand its roster of women and minorities in teaching positions, like many law schools at the time, said Burbank, who sat on the appointments committee when she was hired. But he and other people involved in hiring Warren, including Simmons, the former Rutgers dean, said they weren’t even aware of her claims of Native American heritage.
Those claims became controversial when Warren later entered politics. Opponents accused her of seeking preferential treatment by citing thin ties to an ethnic minority. Warren’s colleagues, as first reported by the Boston Globe, said it had nothing to do with her law school advancement.
“It’s demonstrably false because I was intimately involved in hiring her at Penn and it just never came up,” Burbank said in an interview.
Warren got an offer to leave Penn and join Harvard Law in 1993, after a stint as a visiting professor there. She told the student newspaper she would have laughed if anyone ever told her she’d have that opportunity.
“I have as good a chance of flying a rocket ship to the moon!” she told the Harvard Law Record.
Warren turned down the initial offer, but two years later made the move and settled in Massachusetts, where she would launch her political career. There were already signs of the political figure she would become. Her bankruptcy work had drawn enough attention that she was being called to testify before Congress, long before she would join its ranks.
“I want my voice heard, not only the voice of paid lobbyists,” Warren told the Record. The line echoes in her campaign today, and it might have sounded at home at the People’s Electric Law School.