Before she was a presidential candidate, Warren taught law at UH
Two-time Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is an experienced politician and a front-runner in the Democratic primary, but before that, she was a law professor and undergraduate student at the University of Houston.
Warren has taught law at Harvard, the University of Texas and four other schools, including UH — her alma mater where she met a man she said she owes a lot to, retired law professor John Mixon.
“One of the most aggravating references to university or colleges is when someone lets you know right off they’re a Yale person or a Harvard person,” Mixon said, who taught at the Law Center for almost 60 years. “She doesn’t even make a lot of the fact that she was at Harvard, either. She didn’t make a lot of the fact that she went to the University of Pennsylvania or the University of Texas. She doesn’t pin her identity to any school. By and large she presents herself as herself.”
Warren first moved to Houston in the 1960s after her husband got a job at IBM. She enrolled at the University of Houston and after two years, graduated in 1970 with a Bachelor of Science in speech pathology and audiology.
Not much is known about her time as an undergraduate student, but Warren has described UH as the one way she could continue her college education after dropping out of George Washington University, because UH cost only $50 a semester.
“She earned a debate scholarship, but dropped out to get married to her high school sweetheart at 19,” according to her website. “Elizabeth got a second chance at a commuter college in Texas that cost $50 a semester, and she started teaching children with special needs at a public elementary school.”
When Warren graduated from UH she eventually went on and continued her education at Rutgers Law School. After graduating in 1976 from law school, passing her bar exam, having two kids, teaching at Rutgers for a year and divorcing her husband, Warren returned to UH to continue her career as a law professor.
“She had finished Rutger’s Law, and Rutger’s immediately hired her as a research and writing teacher, and we were looking for the same on contract writing,” Mixon said. “We were attracted to her because of her fit into the curriculum, but also because she was obviously a very bright person. Clearly one of the best hires we could have made.”
After her interview for the position at UH she went out to lunch with the professors, which is when Mixon decided he really liked her.
“The chairman of the hiring committee was a crotchety old guy named Eugene Smith, and Smith was a polio survivor who really had difficulty with his movement,” Mixon said. “His nickname was Mean Gene. He overcompensated for his lack of physical ability. I believe it was in her interview that several of us went to lunch.”
Smith sat there and eyed her and ordered a steak. When the steak came, Gene turned to her and said “Here cut this for me,” and essentially she said, “Cut it yourself.”
His response was “Can’t you tell I’m a cripple?” and she quipped back, “I thought you knew that when you ordered the steak.”
After that, Mixon said, Smith hired Warren because she did not let him push her around. He respected that.
Warren taught legal research and writing when she first started and her students, from UH and beyond often touted her methods. Current Law Center professor Douglas Moll was her student at Harvard 1992 and 1993.
“In my opinion, you can tell when they actually care, and you can tell she cared,” Moll said. “She wasn’t being mean to be mean.”
Moll said Warren was not forgiving if a student came to class unprepared. He recalled one time he wasn’t prepared for her class.
“I kind of remember hiding, there was a back bench she couldn’t see. I remember once having to sit down on that bench,” Moll said. “She was demanding, but not in a harsh way.”
Moll credits Warren with helping him become a law professor. She guided him through the process, and he said he’s 99 percent sure she even wrote a letter of recommendation to the University of Houston for him.
During her time as a professor she became good friends with her colleague Mixon, who she described in the past as a mentor.
“John was amazing,” Warren said in 2013 to the UH Law Magazine. “He would take me out to lunch and very gently help me see my own classes from new perspectives. I remain in his debt.”
Mixon and Warren became extremely close while working together. They often could be found eating lunch together at Casa Dominguez discussing how Warren could explain complex concepts to first year law students, along with the occasional office gossip.
“I was maybe her best friend on the faculty when she was here,” Mixon said.
Warren’s time at UH wasn’t an entirely positive experience. At the height of the #MeToo movement in 2017, she told her own story about sexual harassment to NBC’s Meet The Press, which happened at the University. She said a professor she had been on good terms with invited her to his office where he locked the door and chased her around.
“One day he asked me if I would stop by his office, which I didn’t think much about, and I did,” Warren said. “And he slammed the door and lunged for me. It was like a bad cartoon. He’s chasing me around the desk, trying to get his hands on me.”
The Boston Globe reported on the interview when it came out citing a difference of storytelling from when she told the same story at Eugene Smith’s funeral. At the funeral she told the story in a lighthearted way, saying she was laughing while he chased her, as detailed in Mixon’s book “Autobiography of a Law School.”
“They were friends enough that he wanted her to speak at his wake, and she did,” Mixon said. “She flew down from Harvard and told that very story at his wake, but she told it as a story about the deceased, and the crowd accepted it at that point, and the way she told it was quite funny, but it wasn’t funny to her at the time, it was quite serious. It was a mark of her maturity that she was able to overcome it.”
Warren quickly moved up the ranks at UH, becoming an assistant dean with tenure two years after she started. After five years at the University, Warren decided to move on and left to teach law at the University of Texas. Even though Mixon was not fond of the idea of letting her go, he wrote her a letter of recommendation.
“Elizabeth is an excellent colleague. She will fit in with the faculty, and do more than her share of service,” Mixon said in the letter. “But beware, if there is any way to entice her back to Houston, I will try it.”
While Mixon and Warren do not talk much anymore, he still has a soft spot for her and said she has his support for 2020.
“Oh sure — I just sent her money.” he said laughing, after being asked if he was going to vote for her.
Michael Slaten and Ian Everett contributed to this story.